Air India extends its reach with world’s longest-range jet

Singapore Air Show » 2008
February 11, 2008, 11:00 AM

The meteoric development of India’s airline industry continues unabated as Air India extends its nonstop network to all corners of the globe with Boeing’s longest-range airliner. On February 8, Air India placed its fourth 777-200LR on a new direct route between Delhi and New York JFK Airport, and expected the imminent arrival of airplane No. 5 as we approached the start of this year’s Singapore show.

The world’s first 777-200LR fitted with an auxiliary fuel tank, Air India’s latest piece of long-range equipment carries 238 passengers–eight in first class, 35 in business class and 195 in economy–on the 6,350-nm route to New York. Later this year Air India plans to use the twinjet on a new direct route between Bangalore and San Francisco.

Air India calls such direct services between two of the world’s most important information technology centers revolutionary. Unfortunately for the flagcarrier, direct flights between India and the U.S. also exacerbate a shortage of flight commanders as India’s training pipeline struggles to accommodate a 35-percent annual growth rate in the domestic airline business alone. Crew-rest regulations mandate four pilots on such long legs as Delhi-New York, raising the question of whether Air India, for one, can afford to spare two more pilots on a service that needs only two for each leg when connecting through London with a 777-300ER, another airplane type new to the AI fleet.

But despite reports in the Indian press that Air India had delayed 200LR deliveries to conserve its flight crew resources for the 300ER introductions, Air India had taken all four of the 200LRs scheduled for delivery last year basically on time. It now flies its first two 200LRs on a direct route between Mumbai and New York, and the second pair on the Delhi-New York service.

“The [fourth] airplane was scheduled to deliver originally on [December] 29th or something like that and we ended up doing it on the 31st,” said Boeing vice president of sales Dinesh Keshar, who nevertheless acknowledged the severity of India’s flight commander shortage.

While fellow 777-300ER operator Jet Airways has “managed very well” flying to New York via Brussels, according to Keshar, Air India makes do with minimal pilot reserves, in part because of the need for a double cockpit crew on its direct New York services.

Training Priorities
Although it appealed to no avail for permission to operate the direct flights to the U.S. with only three pilots, Air India knew it would need to put in place more training capacity not long after it took its first 777 last July. Unfortunately, forethought didn’t translate into action as quickly as one would have expected. “Fortunately they know when their deliveries are and–with that in mind and having learned that unless it hits you it doesn’t happen kind of thing–now they’re kind of getting ready to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself,” Keshar told AIN.

Boeing’s Alteon training subsidiary had already done its part to ease the crunch by placing a 737-800 simulator in Mumbai for Air India Express, which, according to Keshar “has never had an issue with 737 pilots.” Still, even among India’s 737 fleets, the captains’ ranks consist of a disproportionate number of expatriates lured to India with increasingly good pay, low cost of living and the prospect of operating brand-new airplanes such as the first pair of 737-900ERs now flying for SpiceJet.

Pilots qualified to command a 777 don’t come quite as easily, however, and the recent decision by regulators in the U.S.

to raise the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 60 to 65 will not help matters, as a modest but reliable supply of American pilots in their early 60s consequently withers. Meanwhile, the entire Asian region, Australia and, of course, the U.S. and Europe all compete with India for a finite number of pilots.

In the long run, the only sustainable solution for Air India and the rest of India’s airline business lies with training its own population, a process that takes a lot of time and expense. “Certainly there is a good pipeline of copilots,” said Keshar. “In fact I was told there are up to 2,000 Indians with CPLs waiting to go into the right seat. But I have seen people who are as young as 29, 30 who are now captains.”

Originally scheduled to take delivery of a 777 simulator from Alteon in November, Air India has delayed delivery until “later this year,” by which time it will have taken five 777-200LRs. It also plans to take two more 777-300ERs in April and May, giving it a total of five of those. Next year’s schedules show delivery of the final three 200LRs along with four 300ERs. Boeing expects to deliver the remaining ten 300ERs by August 2009. Meanwhile, Air India also holds firm delivery positions on 27 Boeing 787s and six more 737-800s, of which it now flies 25.

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