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Air-India gets foreign pilots, maharaja-style

Mumbai, Oct. 11: Violating Central Vigilance Commission regulations, Air-India is inducting pilots from a British firm based on a contract for which no tenders were floated.

The British aviation recruitment company’s name was proposed by Boeing, which is supplying the new fleet of 68 planes the airline is buying.

Sigmar Aviation, owned by the Ireland-based Sigmar Recruitment Group, signed a deal with Air-India Express this April to supply pilots to the new airline, which in turn is lending them to parent Air-India.

“We did put out advertisements in leading international aviation magazines before deciding on Sigmar,” said S. Venkat, company secretary and AI general manager, public relations.

The vigilance commission, however, prescribes that a public sector unit must float a tender or call for letters of intent and seek credentials of interested companies.

AI sources involved in talks with the British company said the airline did not carry out technical and financial evaluation of Sigmar, did not call for closed tenders and, therefore, negotiations were not based on an offer made by the lowest bidder.

The sources said Sigmar was chosen on the recommendation of the director (operations), M.K. Hathi, formerly a British passport holder. Hathi, apparently, wrote a letter to AI chief V. Thulasidas.

“I did not recommend Sigmar on my own,” said Hathi, “it was recommended to us by Boeing”.

Thulasidas said: “The issue here is not about calling of tenders, it is about the availability of pilots. So whether it is Sigmar or anyone else it does not matter. We need pilots, and that’s what is most important.”

Sigmar has a business relationship with Alteon Training, a Boeing subsidiary. A news item posted on the company’s official website says: “(On) May 24, 2005, Sigmar Aviation' announced' (that) the company is working with Alteon Training, a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Boeing Company.”

“We did recommend Sigmar to Air-India, but that is something we do for all our clients, we have even recommended it to Jet Airways,” said Dinesh J. Keskar, senior vice-president, sales, and president, aircraft trading, Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

After signing the contract on April 15, Sigmar COO Richard Wall said: “The introduction to Air-India Express was at the behest of Boeing who wished to provide a solution to the shortage of pilots.”

Sigmar is not the only foreign agency supplying foreign pilots to AI. Rishworth Aviation Ltd, of New Zealand, has been doing it for a year.

“Tenders were called in Rishworth’s case. But we will have to review that now because Rishworth is not any more in a position to supply as many pilots as we need,” said Thulasidas.

According to AI, it did not float fresh tenders while selecting Sigmar because the “need for pilots was a continuous and urgent requirement”.

It said that after it realised Rishworth was unable to meet the requirement, it looked for other agencies that could. After checking if they met the technical criteria, a selection was made and a committee was given the task of conducting negotiations. The board was kept informed at all stages, it said.

Rishworth’s contract with AI, however, still stands and the company has supplied a pilot as late as three weeks ago.

An official involved with the training of foreign pilots in AI said: “Many of the pilots supplied by Sigmar (or for that matter Rishworth) are failing the stringent tests conducted by Air-India or are having to be inducted for refresher courses with us.”

AI instructors, however, do not play a role in screening foreign pilots for new-generation Boeings like 777s or 737-800s. Foreign instructors are examining and screening the pilots.

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