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Pilot study

Alpha Aviation Group’s Bhanu Choudhrie warns of the global economic and social consequences of the impending pilot shortage.

One Thursday last September, Davide Casa di Bari was preparing for the biggest flight of his life. In three days’ time he was due to marry his sweetheart, Sandra, in a picturesque Italian coastal city.

Along with ten other wedding guests, the bride and groom were scheduled to fly from Germany to Italy that evening. Just hours before the party was due to depart, disaster struck, the Ryanair flight was cancelled.

Having been informed of the cancellation by his sister, Davide was convinced it was a prank and hung up. It soon became clear this wasn’t a joke. Sandra broke down into tears. There weren’t enough seats on alternative flights to get everyone to the wedding in time.

The only alternative was an epic 1,000 mile, cross-border two-day drive in a hired van, carrying the bride, groom, best man, bridesmaids, mother of the bride and the wedding dress. The trip ended up costing a further €2,000. And whilst the couple were happily married on schedule, they vowed to never fly with Ryanair again.

Over 400,000 other travellers were also affected when Ryanair cancelled tens of thousands of flights last Autumn. The reason behind the cancellations? Various pilot scheduling and holiday rota issues, coupled with an underlying belief – from Ryanair employees themselves – that the airline simply doesn’t have enough pilots.

The increasingly urgent need for more commercial pilots isn’t breaking news. Driven by years of growing developing economies and middle classes, and the rise of low-cost carriers that make flying more affordable, fleets have been expanding and more pilots are required.

According to the latest Boeing predictions, 637,00 more over the next eighteen years to be exact. Geographically, the greatest demand derives from Asia-Pacific, which will require 253,000 more pilots by 2036 (equating to 40% of the global demand).

In no other region is the burgeoning middle class and the expansion of budget carriers, such as AirAsia and Cebu Pacific, placing such a strain on pilots: last year demand to fly across APAC grew nearly 10%.

At the same time, alarmingly, the aviation workforce continues to contract. The financial barriers to entry to becoming a pilot remain high; obtaining an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) can cost upwards of £100,000, with the burden of costs increasingly falling on the pilots themselves – often with no assurance of a job at the end of the training process.

As the Secretary General of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) also recently noted, aviation faces increased competition from other growing sectors for ‘up-and-coming’ talent. Increasing numbers of baby boomer pilots will also be retiring in the coming years.

The potential outcome of all these factors is a perfect storm of growing demand and falling supply, the consequences of which could be catastrophic. Not just for the aviation industry itself, but for wider global economies.

For the industry itself, the effects of the shortage are already being felt. In early 2016, regional US airline, Republic Airways, filed for bankruptcy protection, citing “loss of revenue…associated with grounding aircraft due to a lack of pilot resources”.

SeaPort Airlines in the US was then next to fold, before Horizon Air was forced to cancel hundreds of flights last autumn due to a lack of pilots.

In Norway last summer, thousands of passengers were left stranded when Norwegian cancelled flights due to understaffing. Air Do, a Japanese regional carrier, and both Qantas and Airnorth in Australia have also recently cancelled regional flights due to pilot shortages. The list goes on.

For consumers, the shortage may well result in both increased cancellations and a higher cost to fly.

To help counter the shortage in the immediate term, some Middle Eastern commercial airlines started offering far more attractive salaries than their European and American counterparts in the past ten years.

The money has now flowed to Asia, with some Chinese airlines offering up to £354,000 per year tax free to entice senior pilots. The consequence, however, is that these increased costs to the airlines are likely to be passed on in the form of higher ticket prices.

But it is across burgeoning and growing economies – such as those in South-East Asia – that the impact of the pilot shortage will be most extensively felt.

With the rise of globalisation in recent decades, travel and tourism – underpinned by aviation – have become catalysts for economic growth.

A good example of this is Vietnam, which in recent years has experienced some of the fastest GDP per capita growth in the world, hand-in-hand with a booming tourism and travel industry.

In 2007, 4.1 million international tourists visited Vietnam; last year it was 13 million, a hike of two-thirds in just a decade, with 29% year-on-year growth between 2016 and 2017.

Vietnam’s middle class is similarly flourishing and predicted to double between 2014 and 2020. The nation’s budget airline, VietJet, is also booming and recently announced plans to serve 45 domestic and 36 international routes by 2019. It’s a remarkable growth story considering the airline only started operations at the end of 2011.

With international trade, foreign direct investment, tourism and indeed wider globalisation largely facilitated by aviation, a pilot shortage directly threatens the socio-economic growth of developing nations across the globe. Indeed, this issue isn’t limited to just Vietnam or ASEAN; the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South America also face the threat of an increasingly insurmountable shortage of pilots.

And satisfying this demand will require a concerted industry effort – from airlines, regulators and pilot training providers alike.

One route would be to formalise the courses that aviation authority approved training organisations offer into airline-specific cadetship programmes, so that cadets are trained to meet both the standard and specific airlines’ requirements.

Doing so will accelerate the supply of qualified pilots, and critically lower one of the critical barriers to entry: the high cost of pilot training.

Through cadetship programmes, financing options – provided by partner banks and other financial institutions – ensure better access to loans and study now pay later programmes, opening opportunities for a wider range of cadets.

Furthermore, the shortage can also be addressed by ensuring more women are encouraged to enter the cockpit. Currently, just 3% of commercial pilots worldwide are women, and it is vital that both airlines and private training schools do much more to utilise the untapped potential of budding female pilots.

Thirdly, more streamlined training qualifications such as the MPL (Multi-Crew Pilot Licence) can help accelerate the training process. As cadets are trained according to the requirements of specific airlines, they are fully equipped for the job when they graduate. The whole transition from cadet to pilot is more seamless.

By taking advantage of technological advancements to train fully capable pilots in less time, the MPL offers a path for continued adaptation and optimisation of pilot training processes – whilst still ensuring pilots are fully equipped with the specific skills they need.

Growth in emerging market and developing economies is projected to strengthen to 4.5% in 2018. Moving into the 2020s and beyond, it will be imperative that airlines are furnished with the pilots they need to ensure that the high levels of development across emerging economies can be sustained.

About the authors
Bhanu Choudhrie is the founder of Alpha Aviation Group (www.aag.aero), a global provider of aviation training solutions for the airline industry. The company trains hundreds of new pilots for its airline partners each year.

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