Pilot shortage is said to cripple Asia’s biggest budget airline

By BLOOMBERG

NEW DELHI • IndiGo, an Indian budget carrier, is cancelling dozens of flights every day over the next two months as it struggles to find enough skilled pilots following an aggressive expansion binge, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Pilots at Asia’s biggest low-cost airline by market value have exhausted their annual limit on flying hours earlier than expected, leading to the chaos, the people said, asking not to be identified as they are not authorised to speak to the media. IndiGo declined to comment on pilot shortage.

The airline, which controls more than 40% of the domestic market in India, scrapped as many as 49 flights on Wednesday, and said it will cancel 30 flights a day until the end of the month.

Those disruptions will continue through March, as the airline adjusts its crew rosters, IndiGo, operated by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd, said in a statement, citing weather conditions and restrictions at various airports that “resulted in extended duty times” for crew, forcing a re-roster.

The problems at IndiGo, the biggest customer for Airbus SE’s A320neo jets, follow chaos at China Airlines Ltd last week, when cockpit crew went on a strike complaining of overwork, leaving thousands of passengers stranded during a peak travel season in the region.

India needs 17,000 new pilots in the next decade, according to Kapil Kaul, New Delhi-based CEO at consultancy CAPA India.

The cancellations started late last week when New Delhi and its surroundings were lashed by a hailstorm, sending airline schedules haywire.

A planned runway closure in the southern city of Bengaluru and commercial capital Mumbai added to the mess.

IndiGo, which inducted 19 Airbus A320-family aircraft in the past four months, is aggressively adding capacity as carriers rush to cash in on a travel boom in India, the world’s fastest growing aviation market. More aircraft also mean having to hire more pilots, typically at least 12 for every narrowbody jet, adding to costs.

“Their over-ambitious aircraft growth without planning ahead with crew numbers will cost them,” said Mohan Ranganathan, a former commercial pilot and an aviation consultant based in Chennai.

IndiGo is likely to add at least 40 more aircraft in the year ending March 31, 2020 after inducting about 62 in the current year, according to consultancy CAPA India.

The airline, which also operates smaller ATR aircraft on regional routes, has 430 Airbus A320-family jets on order, on top of a previous deal to buy 100 narrowbody jets.

Boeing Co forecasts about a quarter of a million new pilots will be needed in Asia over the next two decades as 40% of the world’s fleet is expected to be delivered to carriers from the region. — Bloomberg