How Indian Airlines Are Gearing Up To Prepare For Talent War

Last Saturday, as more than 900 or 55 per cent of IndiGo flights were delayed owing to the mass sick leave of the airline's staff, two very crucial issues within the Indian aviation sector surfaced–a growing rift between the airlines and the employees and the brewing talent war
Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

The great Indian talent war is on in the domestic aviation landscape which has seen a lot of upheaval in the past two years owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the post-pandemic revival and new players entering the industry. Competition is likely to soar in the country's aviation sector during 2022, as new players enter the market going all guns blazing to hire the best talent to ensure a perfect take-off. This has left incumbents scurrying to retain their staff with myriad lures such as pay hikes, bonuses, etc. in order to thwart attempts at poaching.

Last Saturday, as more than 900 or 55 per cent of IndiGo flights were delayed owing to the mass sick leave of the airline's staff, two very crucial issues within the Indian aviation sector surfaced–a growing rift between the airlines and the employees and the brewing talent war. 

The mass sick leave by IndiGo employees has been attributed to the salary dispute. The domestic carrier implemented 30 per cent pay cuts for its pilots last year as a cost-cutting measure. In April this year, the domestic carrier suspended several pilots after they protested over the issue. Notably, Saturday’s issue also caught the eye of the Indian aviation watchdog–the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), who has sought a detailed explanatory report regarding the issue from the airline.

Notably, the mass leave by IndiGo’s cabin crew members happened on the very same day when Air India was conducting mass walk-in interviews across several Indian cities. Reports suggest that several IndiGo cabin crew members, who participated in mass leave, were later spotted in the Air India interview. Meanwhile, apart from Air India, Jet Airways and Rakesh Jhunjhunwala’s Akasa Air have also been occupied posting job vacancies and conducting interviews to retain a talented workforce in the past several weeks. 

Touted as the third-largest aviation industry, the domestic civil aviation sector is not only expanding in terms of operations but also adding more carriers. As Jhunjhunwala’s Akasa Air and the debt-ridden Jet Airways gear up to take to the skies, here is how the domestic airlines are trying to retain the best talent.

Salary Hike For IndiGo Employees

Following Saturday’s incident, IndiGo has hiked the salaries of pilots and crew members by eight per cent with effect from August 1. Notably, in April this year, the domestic carrier hiked the salaries of its distressed employees by eight per cent. In total, IndiGo has hiked the salaries of its employees by 16 per cent this year to retain talent.

s per the data available on the DGCA website, the airline has 27,812 employees, of which, 4,017 are employed as pilots and 6,573 as cabin crew, while the remaining are employed as ground staff and airport staff.

Stock Options For Akasa Air Employees

Even before the airline received the DGCA’s approval to start operations, Akasa Air had been preparing to retain talent. The company, which is on a recruitment drive for pilots, cabin crew and airport staff, currently has around 50 employees for back-office operations. In order to lure in and retain employees, the airline is planning to offer stock options to its staff.

“The degree to which Akasa plans to grant stock options for staff will be far greater than most airlines in India and hopefully reminiscent of maybe some of the tech startups where they go fairly deep in the way they provide employee stock ownership plans," said Vinay Dube, Chief Executive Officer, Akasa Air.

“We recently launched our learning centre in Gurugram, where we will provide training in a manner consistent with Akasa's corporate culture and the service and safety ethos we want to create. It is at every level, whether pilots, flight attendants or ground crew. Where required, we will also team with some institutions worldwide to help us," Dube, in an interview with Outlook Business, said.

Jet Airways’ Attempt To Bring In Ex-Employees

In 2019, when the debt-ridden airline halted its operations, the 16,000 staff employed with the domestic carrier was reduced to 3,200 employees. While some employees found employment in rival airlines, the rest of them shifted to other sectors.  

Now as Jet Airways intends to restart operations with the help of a resolution plan by the Jalan-Kalrock consortium after a break of three years, it is trying to reach out to its ex-employees – some of whom have turned bitter towards the airlines over the years.

In a recent interview with Outlook Business, Sanjiv Kapoor, CEO, Jet Airways said the airline currently has over 200 employees, of which more than two-thirds are former Jet Airways staff. Akasa Air is also planning to start recruitment for operational roles soon.

Air India’s Hiring And Firing Strategy

Tata Group-backed Air India currently has 9,113 employees under its payroll, as per the data by DGCA. Of this, 1,282 are employed as pilots and co-pilots, whereas 1,555 are employed as cabin crew staff. The remaining are employed as ground crew and airport staff.

In June this year, the airline launched its Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS), under which permanent employees above 55 years of age, those with 20 years of service completion, and cabin crew, clerical and unskilled staff above 40 years of age, could opt for the VRS package, applicable from June 1, 2022, to July 31, 2022. Notably, as per the disinvestment rules, the airline cannot lay off its employees for a period of one year. Tata Group took control of the beleaguered Air India in January this year.

The airline is simultaneously hiring new and young staff and is also bringing in executives from sister airlines like Air Vistara, as well as other subsidiaries of Tata Group such as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS).

Talent War Across Board Rooms

In an effort to change their leadership, the airlines are also appointing executives with years of experience at top posts. For example. IndiGo recently appointed Pieters Elbers as its CEO, with effect from September 30, 2022. Elbers, who previously worked as the CEO of KLM, will replace Ronojoy Dutta.

Meanwhile, Air India has appointed Campbell Wilson as its new Managing Director and CEO. With an experience of 26 years in the aviation sector, Campbell previously headed Singapore Airlines.

Shortage of Pilots And Cabin Crew

When the Covid-19 pandemic halted airlines' operations across domestic and international routes in 2020, more than 19,000 people or 10 per cent of the workforce who were previously employed in the civil aviation sector, lost their jobs. Notably, the sector also has a deficit of 1,000 commercial pilots.

The employees in the sector faced a double whammy of salary and allowance cuts. Reports suggest that while the flying allowance for pilots witnessed a steep decline of 35 per cent, the cabin crew staff received 20 per cent less of their domestic layover allowance. Moreover, several pilots were drawing a salary of less than Rs 25,000 per month, according to a report by The Times Of India. Furthermore, long working hours added to the distress of aviation employees.

As the aviation sector is slowly limping back to normalcy two years after the pandemic, it will be worth noting what other mechanisms the airlines will introduce to cope with the staff shortage.

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