Sunday, May 10, 2009

India Sends the Foreign Pilots Back Home

NEW DELHI -- India's airlines, in a slump, are sending the following message to the cockpit: Foreign pilots, go home.

It's an abrupt turnaround from the past several years, when Western pilots looked to growing markets like India as saviors for their profession. While carriers in the U.S. and Europe struggled with the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, India was opening its skies to new domestic carriers -- and hiring hundreds of foreign pilots to fill the new planes with experienced fliers.

But in the past several months, India's airline industry has contracted as the economic crisis has hit. Now, the industry is trying to cut costs.

Part of the solution: Firing expensive, though often more experienced, foreign pilots. India's government has effectively endorsed the purge. In March, it ordered airlines to get rid of all foreign pilots by July 2010.

[India pilot chart]

The purge is the latest in a string of similar moves around the world, as governments try to reduce the number of foreign workers to free up jobs for native-born citizens. In Malaysia, the government has frozen recruitment of workers from overseas in some sectors and asked employers to lay off foreigners instead of locals. Australia has said it intends to cut its intake of skilled migrants by 14% amid rising unemployment. Last month, the Irish government said it was imposing rules to make it tougher for foreigners to get and renew work permits.

Such moves are making life harder for employers that have relied on overseas workers to keep costs low or make up for shortages of skilled labor. The restrictions are also creating new hardships for the workers themselves. Many made enormous sacrifices to travel abroad in search of better employment and new opportunities.

For pilots, India's decision has raised a troubling question: If even growth markets like India won't hire pilots, who will?

Last year, in the twilight of his 45-year flying career, Svein Brendefur arrived in New Delhi with a single goal. "There was one thing I wanted very much that I wasn't able to do," the 64-year-old Norwegian says. "That was to fly the latest-generation planes."

After a career that included stints as a fighter pilot during the Cold War and at a big Scandinavian airline, he made captain for Indian carrier SpiceJet Ltd. and started flying the new Boeing jets.

Then, six days before Christmas, Mr. Brendefur was told his job at the Gurgaon-based airline would end at the end of the year. He has applied to other airlines in the Middle East and Asia, hoping to stay in the region. But, he says, he might be running out of time. "Every day, I'm coming closer and closer to 65, when no one will hire me anymore," he says. "To relocate from one corner of the world to another is not something you do for fun."

More than 800 foreign pilots like Mr. Brendefur heeded the call to come to India, according to the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, a Sydney-based market-research company. At their peak, they made up almost 20% of India's pilot corps.

"There were lots of discussions around the breakfast table with families: Should I look east and take a job there?" says Jim McAuslan, general secretary for the British Airline Pilots' Association. "Even up to a few months ago, people were making that decision" as layoffs and salary cuts continued at many Western carriers.

Recently, though, the Indian aviation industry has hit hard times. The industry is expected to lose more than $1.5 billion in the year ended March 31, analysts estimate. Pleas for a government bailout have gone unanswered, and carriers say they have been forced to cut staff and sell planes to stay afloat.

In an election year, cutting Indians from the payroll has proved too politically sensitive. When Mumbai-based Jet Airways Ltd. said in October that it would lay off 1,900 flight attendants and pilots, the Indian government stepped in, pressuring the company to backpedal; it kept the workers. Firing foreign pilots, in contrast, doesn't set political alarm bells ringing, airlines and industry observers say.

"It makes overall economic sense to replace the expats," says Jack Ekl, chief pilot and executive vice president of flight operations for SpiceJet.

The airline still has 42 expatriate pilots, or roughly half of its captains, on the books, but expects to replace them by the government's deadline, he says.

While some carriers are having trouble finding enough Indian pilots with the required flight hours to promote to captain, almost all airlines say they will be expat-free by July 2010.

Bangalore-based Kingfisher Airlines Ltd. said it is "in compliance with the program" to phase out foreign pilots. A company spokesman declined to comment on how many expat pilots Kingfisher has.

Some observers say the protectionist measures India is taking in its aviation sector could prompt other countries to do the same to Indian workers.

"It could be a very short-sighted approach that the Indian government is taking," says Mr. McAuslan.

—Patrick Barta contributed to this article.

Write to Niraj Sheth at

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