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DGCA’s notice period irks pilots

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The Directorate General of Civil Aviation is mulling over increasing the notice period of pilots from six months to one year based on a Civil Aviation Requirement which quotes Aircraft Rules of 1937. But is this legally tenable?

By Shobha John

The going seems to be getting tougher for pilots, those highly skilled professionals who are in short supply in the civil aviation sector. In 2005, a Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) was brought in by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to curb the exodus of pilots for greener pastures. This CAR said that pilots should give a six-month notice before quitting an airline or else be in danger of forfeiting their license. But 11 years after this CAR, reports that the DGCA is mulling about increasing the notice period to one year has agitated pilots.

Illustration: Anthony Lawrence
Illustration: Anthony Lawrence

As newer airlines such as Vistara and Air Asia India take to the skies, they need experienced commanders, who they hope to woo from established airlines such as Air India, Jet, SpiceJet and IndiGo. This has worried these airlines and some of them want DGCA to increase the notice period to one year. Ironically, the very same airlines which are now trying to prevent their pilots from being poached were the ones who took the pilots of Air India and Jet in 2005. Talk about getting paid back in the same coin.

This turf war is because the number of experienced pilots in the industry has not kept pace with the fast expansion plans of airlines. Presently, India has around 5,000 commercial pilots.

LICENSE IN JEOPARDY

Coming to the 2005 CAR—CAR Section 7, Series X, Part II which pertains to training and licensing—it says: “It has been observed that pilots are resigning without providing any notice to the airlines…. as a result airlines are forced to cancel their flights at the last minute…. Such an action on the part of pilots attracts the provisions of sub-rule (2) of rule 39A of the Aircraft Rules, 1937, which reads as follows: ‘The Central Government may debar a person permanently or temporarily from holding any licence or rating mentioned in rule 38 if in its opinion it is necessary to do so in the public interest’.”

In 2005, airlines were often left in the lurch by the en masse resignation of pilots from airlines such as Air India for newer airlines such as Air Sahara.

The CAR further says: “In view of the above, it has been decided by the Government that any act on the part of pilots including resignation from the airlines without a minimum notice period of six months, which may result into last minute cancellation of flights and harassment to passengers, would be treated as an act against the public interest. It has, therefore, been decided that every pilot… shall give a ‘Notice Period’ of at least six months to the employer.”

Kingfisher Airlines employees hold a procession against their chairman Vijay Mallya, following the suicide of a ground staffer’s wife, due to financial hardships, in October 2012
Kingfisher Airlines employees hold a procession against their chairman Vijay Mallya, following the suicide of a ground staffer’s wife, due to financial hardships, in October 2012

However, insiders are questioning the legality of this CAR. Capt Shakti Lumba, former head of operations of Alliance Air and IndiGo, said: “This CAR is legally untenable if a single pilot leaves an airline. How can it be proved that his leaving has caused inconvenience to the public? Airlines never cancel a flight due to a shortage of pilots as they always get a replacement.”

PILOTS’ FAULT?

While pilots bemoan the fact that they are being exploited, insiders say they brought this upon themselves. In 2005, airlines were often left in the lurch by the en masse resignation of pilots from airlines such as Air India for newer airlines such as Air Sahara. Many also joined Middle Eastern airlines such as Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Etihad. Pilots also question the DGCA’s role and ask why this regulatory body doesn’t act when airlines shut down and pilots don’t get salaries. One commander asked: “Is the DGCA only looking after the interests of airlines?”

As newer airlines such as Vistara and Air Asia India take to the skies, they need experienced commanders, who they hope to woo from established airlines such as Air India, Jet, SpiceJet and IndiGo. This has worried these airlines and some of them want DGCA to increase the notice period to one year.

A senior DGCA official said on condition of anonymity that the one-year notice period demand had come from established airlines and the DGCA was deliberating over it. The official said: “Removing a pilot’s license is an extreme step. Till now, the DGCA hasn’t cancelled a pilot’s license over the issue of notice period. We have only given show cause notices and warnings.”

In August 2014, the DGCA had issued show cause notices to 22 former IndiGo pilots who have left the airline by giving only a 15-day notice period and had warned them that they could face cancellation of their licenses.

AIRLINES’ PREROGATIVE

While some airlines such as SpiceJet have already introduced a one-year notice period, the DGCA official said airlines are free to make their own terms and conditions irrespective of whether the DGCA has a CAR on it or not. “It is up to the pilot to see if he wants to take up that job,” he said.

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Lumba was probably the only pilot against whom this CAR was applied in 2005. He was then working with Indian Airlines and had applied for voluntary retirement effective from August 31, 2005. He was supposed to join IndiGo on September 1, 2005. But Indian Airlines asked him to serve the notice period after this CAR was formed. He asked for a waiver of the notice period and took his case to Delhi High Court, asking how a case of voluntary retirement could be the same as resignation.

In the Capt Shakti Lumba vs Indian Airlines Ltd. and Ors., the Court directed the parties to settle this issue amicably by December 12, 2005, whereupon Indian Airlines waived off the notice period and issued him a No-Objection Certificate and released him from the airline (See: http://delhihighcourt.nic.in/dhcqrydisp_o.asp?pn=328467&yr=2005). 

Lumba said: “Most international airlines have only a three-month notice period. That is enough time to train a co-pilot into a commander. If a pilot pays back his training costs to his airline and leaves, there would be no problem. But due to pilots resigning en masse and leaving airlines in the lurch, there has been a trust deficit between both which is why we have come to this impasse. This CAR is just a deterrent.”

DESPERATE MEASURES

Aggrieved over the way airlines are trying to curb pilots from leaving, a petition is making the rounds calling for “Revision of Regulatory Notice period to 3 months” which will be submitted to the Ministry of Civil Aviation and DGCA. The petition wants improvements in CAR Section-7, Series ‘X’, Part II and said: “Section 3.1 wrongly assumes that it requires 6 months to train a pilot whereas as per industry standards it is on average 3 months…. Section 3.4 and Section 3.5 are seldom if never invoked against airlines and is blatantly disregarded by Airlines and Regulator.”

With new airlines like Vistara entering the fray, experienced pilots from Air India, SpiceJet, Jet and IndiGo are much in demand
With new airlines like Vistara entering the fray, experienced pilots from Air India, SpiceJet, Jet and IndiGo are much in demand

It further alleged that full and final settlement is delayed for up to 60 days post the six-month period. “Further Airlines during the 6 month Notice period try and deplete the flying hrs so that the pilot cannot fly with the next company immediately and is without income during the said time. This is a form of intimidation that dissuades a pilot from resigning from a company.”

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It asked the ministry and the DGCA not to act at the behest of the operators to exploit pilots and to ensure the following:

  • Reduce the notice period to three months with the option to buy out notice period.
  • Immediate full and final settlement after completion of six months notice period.
  • Pilot to be able to avail all leave benefits during the notice period, else to be encashable at gross pay rates inclusive of all allowances.
  • Pilots training and flying hours for a period of up to three moths post notice period is to be conserved.

 It is obvious that unless pilots and airline managements put aside their egos and work for the betterment of the airline, both will face turbulent weather ahead.

Lead picture: It has become difficult for pilots to switch airlines because of stringent notice period rules.

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