Too old to fly in the US? Welcome to India…

As many as 40 US pilots over the age of 60 are flying passenger aircraft in India. Back home, rules say they are too old to fly. But that's not all; another 26 senior-citizen American pilots are in the queue, awaiting approval from India's aviation authority, say sources.

These pilots do not possess a valid licence to fly passengers. But notwithstanding this, they are not even required to submit to the rigorous annual medical examination that Indian pilots of their age have to compulsorily clear. The retirement age of pilots in India is 65.

Three airlines employ these pilots. Two of them are major carriers operating long-haul international routes while the third is a low-cost domestic airline. Aviation experts warn that in the event of an accident, the ramifications for the country will be serious.

For example, if a Boeing aircraft is involved in an accident, the aviation regulatory authorities of the country where the aircraft was manufactured - the US in this case - will be part of the investigations. The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will require the US pilots to produce their licences for investigation. The problem is, they won't have any valid FAA licenses!

This may result in serious complications, like the insurance of aircraft being held invalid. The FAA can even cancel the permit given to such airlines to operate in the US. Careers of the other pilots in the cockpit may also be in jeopardy; even if they do have valid licences, as could be grounded and blacklisted by the insurance companies as per rules.

The accident could even put the airline in the EU's blacklist of unsafe carriers. At very least, say experts, the DGCA should insist on the same medical checks for foreign pilots over 60 that their Indian counterparts are asked to go through.

And why are Indian airlines putting their passengers at risk? Because there's a huge shortage of experienced pilots. Each year, India needs an additional 600 captains and 300 co-pilots. To compound matters, airlines are scheduled to add 480 more aircraft in the next five years.

Small wonder that more than 40 per cent of the people manning Indian cockpits are foreigners. Trainee pilots who come from learning on small, single-engine aircraft are asked to fly with these experienced 60-plus commanders.