India probes deeper into ‘fake pilots’

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Indian aviation authorities have pledged to “plug the loopholes” in the country’s system for training and licensing commercial airline pilots, amid a widening probe into “fake pilots” who had falsified their qualifications.

Following the arrest of a number of pilots in the past few weeks for allegedly lying about their credentials to obtain pilots licences, authorities are scrutinising the documents of India’s approximately 4,000 active pilots to check for any discrepancies in their paperwork.

The government is also now auditing India’s 40 flying schools, some of which are suspected of inflating the number of flying hours undertaken by their students to help them obtain licences at a lower cost. They are also looking at the quality of the training offered at the schools, mostly privately run.

E.K. Bharat Bhushan, the director-general of civil aviation, on Thursday appealed for calm, insisting that fraud in the licensing process is more an aberration than the norm.

“We must not have any panic,” he said. “The honourable minister of civil aviation has ordered that a special committee should be formed to suggest modalities for improving the whole process and to plug the loopholes.”

Authorities are also investigating whether officials working for the DCGA may have been complicit in the fraud.

India’s commercial airlines have recorded explosive growth over the past decade, with the number of passengers on domestic trips growing from 14m a year in 2000 to 50m passengers last year.

However, airlines are struggling to keep pace with burgeoning demand for pilots and Neil Raymond Mills, the CEO of budget carrier SpiceJet, has warned that an already acute talent shortage is likely to worsen in the years ahead.

The furore over fake pilots threatens to undermine the public trust in what has been one of India's fastest-growing transportation industries.

The fraud began unravelling earlier this month when New Delhi authorities arrested Captain Parminder Kaur Gulati, a 38-year-old flying for low-cost carrier IndiGo, India’s fastest growing private airline.

Authorities say that Capt Gulati – the wife of a senior Indian police officer – had failed some parts of the rigorous exams required to become a commercial airline pilot but obtained a licence on the basis of a forged mark-sheet. Questions were raised about her skills after several dangerous landings.

Since then, police in Rajasthan have arrested five pilots, including two working for SpiceJet and two flying instructors, and are searching for another eight suspects, all of whom are accused of using faked records to obtain commercial pilots licences. Another pilot for Air India, the struggling state carrier, was also arrested.

Air India, SpiceJet and Indigo have also grounded other pilots, whose credentials are suspected of being fraudulent, and authorities are still investigating the extent of the ring.

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