Bleak skies ahead for Go First trainee pilots who paid up to ₹80 lakh in training fees to the airline

Uncertainty over his job prospects and a mounting debt have often led to panic attacks and sleepless nights for a 25-year-old trainee pilot at Go First, who paid the airline ₹80 lakh for the second leg of his training that starts after joining an airline. With the airline now shut for six months and his training still incomplete, he has few takers in the job market.

Abhishek Chaturvedi (name changed) is among 34 trainee pilots who paid Go First between ₹50 lakh and ₹80 lakh for a six-month training programme, before being “line released” to fly the company’s aircraft. Finding another job will now require them to restart this training, paying a similar fee to their new employer. Industry veterans say that “exorbitant” training costs are an emerging trend that has gone unregulated, as a result of which this may be the first time in Indian aviation that an airline’s collapse has so egregiously affected pilots.

The trainees have written to the Minister for Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia, seeking his intervention to secure their future.

Costly training

“The shutting down of flight operations at Go First was a pre-meditated event. I paid the second instalment of ₹30 lakh to the airline on April 17, which was only two weeks before they filed for insolvency resolution,” Mr. Chaturvedi told The Hindu. The terms of contract required the trainee to deposit two cheques of ₹30 lakh each within the first 60 days of joining, while the remaining ₹20 lakh would be deducted from his salary over a period of five years. A new joinee is also required to deposit another cheque of ₹50 lakh as a “retention deposit” to ensure that he does not leave the company before completing five years.

The training fee and the deposit are in addition to the ₹30 lakh that Mr. Chaturvedi spent on his initial training in the U.S. in 2018, which made him eligible for a commercial pilot license, which is needed before he can get a job with any airline.

Go First collapse impact

Go First filed for insolvency resolution on May 3. On Thursday, the National Company Law Tribunal extended its resolution timeline until February 4, failing which liquidation proceedings will be initiated. Go First’s collapse is the third such setback for Mr. Chaturvedi and his peers in recent times. The shutting down of Jet Airways’ flight operations in 2019, followed by two years of COVID-19 lockdowns that severely impacted air travel, have turned their wait to become fully-fledged pilots into a long one.

While he is on the waiting list to join Air India, Mr. Chaturvedi will have to spend another ₹40 lakh to undertake his airline training there. Along with his sister’s U.S. education and upcoming wedding, this additional expense has strained the family’s finances.

Straining finances

It is a similar story for 27-year-old Abhik Majumdar (name changed), who now spends some of his time teaching at an aviation coaching centre in Kolkata to earn some pocket money. His parents, who are both government employees, are staring at a collective loan of ₹1.10 crore out of which ₹50 lakh was paid to Go First, and ₹60 lakh spent on his initial training in Bahrain in 2020.

It has been a tough gamble for 40-year-old Priyank Gupta, who left his family’s garment manufacturing and export business to pursue his passion for flying in 2018. He and his parents now depend on his wife, who is a senior cabin crew with a private charter company. His bank has turned down his request for a moratorium on repayment of the ₹50 lakh loan he took for his Go First training. He and his peers have also collectively written to various airlines — including Vistara, Air India, and IndiGo — highlighting their plight in the hope that they will take a sympathetic view during hiring.

‘Exorbitant fees’

Veterans in the field say that the training fees levied by airlines have grown four or five times in the recent past, and question why airlines were being allowed to “monetise” pilot recruitment in an unregulated manner.

“Airline training involves a few ground classes, some sessions on the simulator, flying as an observer on 70 sectors [flights] and one base check,” one senior pilot said. “All the observation flights are carried out on flights which have passengers, which means the airline, apart from paying some compensation to the trainer, isn’t incurring any additional cost. Only a base check flight of about 40 to 45 minutes is conducted solely for training purposes. These exorbitant costs are only meant to ensure that new pilots are bonded to the company for up to five years for a fixed salary lower than prevailing market rates,” the pilot added.

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