IndiGo is India’s largest and fastest growing low-fare airline, offering 671 daily flights to 39 destinations. Chris Long explores the training programs for this developing company.

Whenever a new low cost carrier arrives on the scene it is always interesting to discover what business model it will use. There is, of course, the advantage that it does not have the constraints which many legacy carriers have, and so, right from the start, it can form its own culture and behaviours.

In the challenging aviation environment that was prevalent in India after the turn of the century, where problems of infrastructure, bureaucracy and attendant regulatory issues tended to stifle modernisation, a new kid on the block deliberately chose a completely different path and business ethos. IndiGo started in 2006, and this privately-funded airline entered profitability in its third year of operation. It was the biggest IPO in India when it went public in November 2015, and it is now, by a considerable margin, the biggest domestic operator in India.

Set up by the holding group organisation, Interglobe Aviation, the young and imaginative president of IndiGo, Aditya Ghosh, determined that a new model for a low cost carrier in India was the future of aviation and the need of the hour. With that in mind there should be a focus on a culture of safety management which required a Safety Management System to be integrated across the company right from the start. That SMS is embedded as a fundamental awareness, rather than as an add-on which required a change in mindset - something which is proving to be a challenge elsewhere. Simply installing safety culture is not sufficient - the whole team must not only understand that principle, but must also take the individual initiative to do their work with that in mind. One of the drivers to engage the employees in safety is to create as good a quality of working environment as possible. Ghosh recognised that it is not simply a question of monetary benefits, which is not a realistic option for an LCC, but to present employees with flexible options in terms of varied contracts and work schedules which will help achieve a work life balance. These, together with favourable and easy staff travel, and a bonus to all personnel in times of good business results, are all excellent motivators.

By the same token, Ghosh makes sure that he has face-to-face meetings every week with the team, including the line pilots. The effect of all this is reflected in the survey conducted by Aon Hewitt’s ‘Great Companies to Work for’; wherein IndiGo was ranked among the Top Companies eight years in a row.

These fundamentals sit comfortably alongside the new aircraft. In common with other LCCs, IndiGo operates a single type - in this case the Airbus A320. So far as the fleet is concerned, the numbers illustrate the success and ambition of this airline, with a strength of 100 A320s already flying and with further deliveries of another 180 aircraft underway. 2015 saw an additional order for 250 A320s (including options for A321s), bringing the total Airbus A320 family ordered (CEOs and NEOs) to 530.

Pilot Recruiting & Training

As a long-term view, in the planning for IndiGo, the aim is to present an entire career structure for pilots which provides them with a career graph of their professional growth within the airline, and thus, retains flight crew. Not only is the number of pilots constantly increasing, but it is critical to ensure that the quality and competence of those pilots is assured. The airline recruits from the same sources as everyone else; a small number of ex-military pilots, some cadet pilots, as well as a significant number from other airlines. About 200 pilots from the Indian airline Kingfisher were accepted into IndiGo with the advantage that they were already qualified and experienced on type. That was helpful, as together with the measures already in place, it has meant that for the moment at least, the flow of pilots into the airline matches the expansion plan.

[caption id="attachment_3757" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]indigo The current flow of pilots into the airline matches IndiGo's expansion plan. Image credit: IndiGo.[/caption]

The core business of an airline is transporting passengers, and with that in mind there has been no intention of setting up and running an entire training organization. The airline is very clear that there is strict adherence to the Airbus (OEM) way of operating the aircraft and it will stick to that philosophy. Captain Sanjiv Bhalla, chief pilot, Standards & Quality Assurance, takes that a step further, and points out that as Airbus defines the Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT) appropriate to the aircraft, IndiGo will adopt that.

Captain Ashim Mittra, vice president, Flight Operations, feels that the Indian subcontinent will always be a hunting ground for pilots with experience, especially by the big Middle East carriers. Pilots will get lured by tax free salaries and a chance to fly the wide bodied aircraft. He strongly feels that if they plan to fly such large numbers of aircraft, lateral hiring of pilots is not a long term solution. They need to work on a consistent and robust cadet program, which after some time will cater for all their hiring needs. This vision has already been communicated to their partners – CAE which “has been our long term partner and we have a strong relationship and commitment with them.”

Not only does CAE participate in the selection of pilots, but it tailors the training to the individual requirements. Nick Leontidis, group president - Civil Aviation Training Solutions, CAE, spells out the training options in support of IndiGo, whereby initial and recurrent training is primarily carried out at the InterGlobe/CAE joint venture facility in NCR (Delhi), where there are currently three A320 full flight simulators in the six bays (which indicates the potential for expansion). In addition initial type ratings can also be conducted across the range of CAE centers in Singapore, Madrid, Bangalore, Kuala Lumpur, Brussels and Dubai. These cater not only for the newly-recruited experienced crew, but also for the low-time pilots who have just graduated from the NFTI-CAE Oxford Academy Gondia, which is a joint venture of AAI (Airport Authority of India) and CAE. This is approved by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

For many of the future IndiGo pilots, that career-long position starts with the selection process run with CAE and IndiGo. The students are self-funded and once they are given a letter of Intent by IndiGo, it becomes easier for them to obtain loans from the banks. The training at Gondia is carried out on a fleet of Diamond aircraft, supported by CAE FNPT2s (simulators) and which follows the standard CAE syllabus, resulting in a CPL/IR Frozen ATPL. The graduates then join the type rating in the CAE network.

Soft Skills

Once launched into a career within the airline there are some general principles which come into play. Soft skills receive a lot of emphasis, and Bhalla is very clear that the tone is set by the behaviour of the instructors, who are the role models for the new entrants. As a result of building up the numbers with experienced pilots there is a good depth of experience within the fleet, but the reality is that gradually there will be a reduction in the average experience level as it is across the industry in India, as older pilots retire. Part of the recurrent training for First Officers is an assessment as to their suitability for command. The need to nurture leadership skills in these First Officers who will become captains at a relatively young age and lower total flight-time, has been recognised and training in the necessary skills at various levels, is already in place.

A Leadership Management Course run by LMQ (Leadership Management Quality), a UK-based company specializing in CRM and teaching techniques, is available to IndiGo’s trainers. This core course is a part of the initial APIC (Airbus Pilot Instructors Course) that is conducted by Airbus. LMQ has been selected by many of the world’s major aviation organisations to provide initial training programs for new trainers and enhanced training packages for their experienced trainers. This is a long-term program which was rolled out in 2013 at IndiGo and many of the training captains have already undergone the course. It is being progressively rolled out for other trainers in the months ahead. Because it is concerned with behaviour and is a developmental tool, not a grading tool, there is much more benefit derived from self-assessment rather than a formal debrief. The pilots also undergo in-house leadership programs which equip and prepare them to handle the role related challenges and enhance their ability to lead successfully in any given situation.

Automation

By design, the most efficient way to operate the aircraft is to use all the available automation, so this is the baseline choice for routine flights. The criticality of maintaining manual flying skills is very much recognised, and these are being emphasized and practised during the regular recurrent training and in the FFS.

Lifestyle

In the overall view of the airline, sustainable lifestyle is seen as an essential part of the career pattern. Not only is that highly desirable for the individual, but retaining contented flight deck crew vastly reduces turbulence and workload for the training teams. It is recognised that basing and rostering are major factors in crew management. IndiGo has a flexible basing policy. By the same token, rostering is presently worked one and a half months ahead, with the goal of attaining a three-month rostering process in the future. That level of stability in work rate should give greater reassurance to the crews.

Training Workload

The ab-initio pathway trains about 150 new entrants a year, with up to 300 students in training at any given time. In 2015, a total of 102 Senior First Officers were released online as Captains and 288 new First Officers came online. Further, in keeping with the training needs, around 50 trainers have been upgraded in various categories, as Line Training Captains/Instructors/Examiners. Some 200 flight deck crew are presently in the training system, and that number is set to grow to match the arrival of new aircraft.

Captain Sanjiv Bhalla is emphatic that standardisation of trainers remains a top priority area. Trainers, being role models, have a large footprint. Given the growth plans, the training task and hence the number of trainers will only increase. Newly released trainers are standardised by nominated company senior trainers within six months of their release and thereafter annually. Feedback is obtained from all trainers and an annual, day long interaction session is held with all of the trainers. Experienced senior trainers are drafted into a Standards Committee, which meets annually to discuss line and training issues and to recommend any changes to SOPs where applicable

Initial and recurrent training is primarily carried out at the InterGlobe/CAE joint venture facility in Greater Noida near New Delhi. Image credit: IndiGo.

Up & Running Well

IndiGo does not have a customer loyalty scheme. It believes that by having achieved an impressive on-time performance is itself the characteristic that cements the loyalty of its passengers. To achieve that it certainly needs dispatch reliability, but that is not just a function of the hardware (aircraft) but, critically, the results of the efforts of a well-trained, motivated and effective team. The foundations have now been well established, and the controlled build up points to a resilient and continuing growth, as consideration is being given to expanding the international route structure.

It is worthy of note that in researching this article, two very credible organisations credited IndiGo with being the most punctual and professional Indian airline, one going so far as to suggest that this innovative IndiGo solution be the model for future airlines.