The last time British Airways offered wannabe pilots the chance to train for a job with the company was before 9/11.
Between now and 2016, says BA head of recruitment Robin Glover, the airline needs 800 new pilots, about half of which will be newly trained. The balance will come from other carriers and the military.
This time BA is not laying out a penny toward the trainees' courses in its Future Pilot Programme, but it will guarantee their loans for training, which means they will definitely be able to get finance. Glover says that, since the credit crunch, only rich students have been able to raise finance, so the airlines have been fishing in a small pond. This move widens the field.
Of course the risk to BA of guaranteeing a loan is practically zero, because by the time the airline provides the guarantee the student will have gone through aptitude tests and begun the course, and the flying training organisation (FTO) can tell pretty early on which trainees are the right stuff and which will struggle.
BA also requires the student to pay for his/her own type rating on the aircraft s/he will fly in service, and does not pay the trainee during it. In Glover's words, that cost is "part of the training package" for which the finance is raised. But, he says, BA's type rating is charged at cost, and as soon as the pilot successfully completes it, the pay cheque arrives.
While BA's offer doesn't exactly sound like a testament to its belief in investing in its future employees, it's a better deal than the shoddy way that Ryanair and Easyjet recruit. They flaunt the prospect of a job, but it's not a promise; the FTO helps the student find finance, the student pays for the type rating at a commercial (rather than cost) rate, then the recruit works the line unpaid until line acceptance checks are complete. If flying's slow, that can be six months or more.
The arrival of BA back on the scene means the others will be fishing in a smaller pool, and they can guarantee they won't be the destination of choice any more in the UK market, so they will get more of the strugglers.
In the next few years we are going to see what market forces do to pilot recruitment mores. Airlines are expanding slowly but relentlessly, and the world fleet likewise. Even a relatively desirable employer like BA may struggle to get the combination of numbers and quality it has always assumed was its birthright.
After all, when they join the line, BA recruits will be paying back their university loan (£30,000 maybe?), and their £100,000-odd pilot training loan, so how much of their pay will be left for living? Does that sound like a choice that large numbers of bright young people will be making?
Let's watch the market forces at work.