In the last 15 years there have been many false alarms about impending pilot and engineer shortages, but evidence now suggests the day of reckoning is at hand. And this time there will be no remission.
To understand current predictions, it is worth reviewing how the airlines have been "saved by the bell" four times from their own failure to invest in training.
The first remission arrived in 2001 with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Air travel slumped and large numbers of pilots were furloughed. In 2003 the threat of a global SARS pandemic depressed air travel, and an oil price crisis caused an economic slowdown. Then, in 2005, raising the pilot retirement age pushed the supply problem back a further five years.
Despite all this, by 2007 the world economy was booming and airlines expanding. But the US regional carriers were losing their pilots to the majors in unsustainable numbers, so they looted flight training organisations for their instructors, causing a crisis in the training industry. Then the final bell came in 2008 with the banking crisis, and the airlines once again were saved from their lack of provision for the future.
But now the world's economy appears to have bottomed out, the airline industry has shed much of its fat, air travel demand is rising in most of the world, orders for new airliners have created record manufacturer backlogs and economies in the Asia-Pacific region and the BRIC countries are expanding rapidly. Barring another pandemic scare, the stage seems set for steady expansion, and all the scary figures are being rolled out once more: 450,000 new pilots needed in the next 20 years; Asia-Pacific alone needs 180,000 pilots and 250,000 engineering staff by 2030.
This would be fine if airlines just had to wake up and throw money at the problem. But what money? They may be expanding, but margins remain low. And the production of expert staff has a built-in two-year lag. There is no way training can be done more quickly, and the product, while - one hopes - of good quality, arrives on the line with low experience and a need for nurture.
Given the hurdles, it is essential that airlines urgently attend to a number of tasks: attracting more well-educated young people into the industry; changing out-of-date training regulatory standards; training pilots differently for the modern piloting task by adopting evidence-based training; and promoting instructing as a career choice.
(This piece appeared as the leading article in Flight International 26 June 2012)