With several Indian airlines having been brought to the brink due to the price wars of the past few years, the oil-price shock last year, and the current recession, most of them have now decided to end the contracts of their highly paid foreign pilots, in order to save on costs.
Of the nearly 950 foreign pilots, 810 commanders and approximately 140 co-pilots, working in nearly all the Indian airlines, have become the first highly-paid casualties of the cost cutting exercise adopted by the Indian airline industry.
This is in contrast to 2005, when airlines were forced to hire foreign pilots at hugh salalries to overcome the shortage of skilled pilots, once the Indian civil aviation sector was opened up to private airlines.
Initially, airlines were allowed to hire co-pilots only until 30 May 2008 and senior pilots or commanders until July 2010. Virtually every airline - IA, Air Deccan, Kingfisher Airlines, Jet Airways and Spice Jet among others - had employed pilots from the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Egypt, Columbia, Romania, France and Denmark.
However, later in August 2008, the government extended the tenure of co-pilots for two more years to 2010 at the behest of the industry, as the newly trained Indian co-pilots did not have the requisite experience for flying the A-320s or the Boeings in their fleets.
Till August 2008, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, (DGCA) had handed out licenses to 1,490 foreign pilots to work for Indian airlines.
The acute shortage of pilots fequently led to domestic airlines poaching their rival's pilots, who could literally walk into a new, higher paid job at the end of a flight, till 2007, when domestic carriers got together and hamered out a no-poaching agreement at the intervention of the DGCA.
According to industry sources, Indian carriers will need an estimated 10,000 pilots by 2020 as the sector grows and carriers scale up capacities. Currently, there are approximately 2,500 Indian pilots.
The acute shortage of pilots left youngsters scrambling to join flying schools abroad, shelling out around Rs20 lakh to become certified pilots.
Some airlines also chipped in by sending promising youngsters to flying schools abroad with Kingfisher even tying up with a flying school in California and Arizona, paying $45,000 for a nine-month training course and ready to hire those who graduated and passed the medical and written tests.
In June, Air India inducted 44 new pilots into its ranks. Trained at its own academy, the fresh inductees increase the number of pilots in the flag carrier's ranks to 1,244. (See: Air India inducts first lot of pilots trained in-house)
Last August, the general secretary of Indian Commercial Pilots' Association Vikram Yadav had said that nearly 3,000 graduate pilots had applied for 25 co-pilots' jobs announced by Jet Airways last year.
But airlines have now resorted to axing these foreign pilots to cut costs than to meet the 2010 DGCA deadline.
According to unconfirmed reports, a foreign pilot, with flying experience of wide-bodied aircraft in India, took home approximately $13,000 plus perks a month in India, while the Indian pilots earned only around $7,000 a month.
This means, an airline would stand to save around $6,000 on each foreign pilot replaced by an Indian pilot each month.
Although some carriers do not have experienced pilots to be promoted as commanders, all airlines have said that they will adhere to the 2010 DGCA deadline of having all Indians in the cockpit.