Last year, Abu Dhabi's Etihad caused a stir in the industry when it announced it was addressing the pilot shortage by setting up an international cadet programme for aspiring aviators with no flying experience. It would run alongside an existing scheme for Emiratis, part of the airline's efforts to get more nationals on the flightdeck.
But the fact that Etihad was extending the initiative to foreign novices showed the lengths to which the company was prepared to go to ensure it had enough pilots to meet its ambitious fleet expansion plans.
Two intakes of 12 students each have begun the 18-month course at the Horizon Flight Academy in Al Ain, which was launched in the second half of last year, and the airline is now selecting candidates for the next intake. Students on the first course have come from countries such as Canada, Hungary and the UK. However, like all airlines, Etihad's immediate recruitment needs have changed considerably after the sharp downturn in international passenger and cargo traffic in the past six months.
"This time last year, we were playing catch-up," says Capt Richard Hill, executive vice-president operations. "We caught up at the end of quarter three and now we've stopped recruiting. In fact, we've got a small surplus and have pre-qualified pilots. The last four of the last batch that we promised jobs to are joining us now."
Things could change, however, with the first of Etihad's five Airbus A330-300s and its sixth and seventh A340-600s due for delivery in the next nine months. The airline, which has 745 pilots, expects to recruit up to 70 more this year, mostly in the second half of 2009. "We've got the luxury of time at the moment," says Hill. "We're in a very comfortable position."
For the first few years after its launch in 2003 as the first "flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates", sceptics suspected Etihad was little more than a vanity project - an "anything you can do" response to the success of Emirates in Abu Dhabi's neighbour, Dubai. Before that, the UAE's biggest statelet had been a shareholder in Gulf Air, along with the governments of Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.
But once Etihad's fleet began to grow - from six aircraft in 2004 to 42 last year - as a spate of destinations were launched from Abu Dhabi's expanded airport, the industry began to take the new name seriously.
"Most of the aviation world knows who we are now," says Hill, who points out that the chance to live and work in Abu Dhabi is the biggest lure for recruits - something reflected in recent job advertisements. "It was the lifestyle we were selling," he says. "There wasn't a plane to be seen."
Because Etihad is growing from such a small base, long-term prospects for recruitment remain good, insists Hill. The fleet will stand at 49 by the end of the year, and from 2011, deliveries from Etihad's $43 billion, 200-aircraft orders and commitments bonanza from Farnborough 2008 begin to kick in. These include the first of 10 Boeing 777-300ERs and the start of an order for 10 A380s at the end of 2012. Further down the line will be 25 A350s and 35 787s.
"We caught up at the end of quarter three and now we've stopped recruiting"
Capt Richard Hill
Etihad executive vice-president operations
Etihad flew just over 6 million passengers in 2008, 34% up on 2007, and launched six routes to take its tally of destinations to 50. It is targeting 25 million passengers by 2020 and doubling its cities served to 100. By that year, it expects to employ 27,000 people, compared with 7,000 at present. The airline has just opened its first dedicated 10-gate terminal, T3, at Abu Dhabi's international airport, which will be replaced by a much bigger "Midfield" terminal in 2012. A new headquarters complex next to the airport, which includes an office building shaped like an aircraft wing as well as a training academy, has also just been completed.
Hill says Etihad is an "exciting place to be", and notes: "Attrition rates among pilots are the lowest I've seen." The airline rarely takes on direct-entry captains, although the pilot shortage compelled it to take on some A320 captains last year, but most first officers gain a command within two years. "We upgraded about 50 last year," says Hill.
As Emirates has found in Dubai, providing accommodation for pilots, cabin crew and other professionals in Abu Dhabi's scarce housing market has been a problem. Although a city-sized suburb is under construction around the airport, "villas are hard to come by", says Hill.
Etihad has taken over about 10 apartment blocks for its staff, and Hill adds: "We're much better placed than we were last year, but we have to be clear to people about what they can expect when they get here. It's unlikely to be a big villa with a pool."
As you would imagine from an airline with a broad spread of nationalities on its flightdecks, Etihad takes crew resource management very seriously. "The biggest challenge is people's ability to read someone else," says Capt John Downey, the airline's head of corporate safety.
"Because of different cultures, they may not read a situation so quickly." But the British Airways veteran says the mix is also an advantage, with pilots very respectful of their colleagues' backgrounds and beliefs. "I can recall many more instances in the UK of someone not wanting to fly with someone else than you ever get here."