Pilot shortage will hit airlines as soon as recovery arrives, say industry experts

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As soon as economic recovery delivers the prospect of airline growth, struggling carriers will collide almost immediately with a barrier to expansion, according to analysis by the International Air Transport Association, Airbus, Boeing and the Flight Safety Foundation. That barrier will be the lack of expert personnel, including pilots, aviation mechanics and engineers, and air traffic controllers.

These predictions, together with fairly desperate suggestions for last-ditch measures that might ameliorate the situation, were delivered by speakers at Flight International's Crew Management Conference in Dubai on 1-2 December.

The rapid and sustained return of demand for air travel is not debatable but inevitable, says IATA, driven by the "massive growth of the middle class throughout the developing world, which is not likely to stop".

This is a problem that IATA, the FSF and others had flagged in 2007 when they launched the industry training and qualification initiative (ITQI). Now, however, the association is worried that the current economic downturn has allowed the airlines to believe the problem has gone away when it has only been delayed slightly.

FSF Fellow Dr Earl Weener pointed out at the conference that, since carriers have frozen training and recruitment in their present constrained circumstances, the situation may worsen.

This has been confirmed by Europe's largest pilot training organisation, the Oxford Aviation Academy, which said that the training industry can no longer afford to compensate for the airlines' lack of planning for pilot provision.

Periodically starved of custom by the retrenching airlines, the schools are not going to be able to recover to produce the IATA-predicted requirement for 19,000 new pilots a year for the scheduled jet operators alone.

ITQI studies have established that the problem "is most severe in places that historically have not been aviation leaders." The researchers observe that:

Many developing countries have been unaware of the consequences of not matching growth to resources.

The workforce has gone mobile (poaching across regions).

Regulators lose pilots, reducing their oversight capabilities.

Language and culture problems on the flightdeck are real.

Just one example of the changed demographics, Weener told the conference, is that 30% of Indonesia's pilot workforce have been attracted to Middle East carriers.

Meanwhile, Weener warned, in countries and regions with a long-established commercial air transport industry, the dramatic relative contraction of the military as a pilot supplier to the airlines has robbed the traditional airlines of the steady pilot supply flow to which they had become accustomed.

The marked distortion of the civil-trained pilot supply routes to the "legacy carriers" caused by the success of low-cost carriers, and the rapid growth of business aviation, have also contributed to the supply shortage.

Existing training resources cannot produce the numbers required to service the doubling of the world fleet over the next 20 years that is predicted by both the major aircraft manufacturers.

Weener said that new training ideas like the multi-crew pilot licence will not compensate for the lack of strategic thinking: "Early experience with MPL shows it may produce better low-time pilots, but not quicker or cheaper, and that MPL teaching requires more experienced instructors."

Behind the potential solutions to the problem being studied under the ITQI is the need to attract pilot applicants in greater numbers. Potential pilots are inevitably discouraged by the average $100,000 cost of training, followed by low initial rewards. The difficulty of borrowing in the present economic climate to finance a career in a cyclical industry is exacerbating the problems.

Not only that, says Anthony Petteford, managing director of ab-initio training at the Oxford academy, but exposure of young people to the idea of commercial flying as a career has been damaged by the post-9/11 locking of airline flightdeck doors, so fewer conceive the job as being real.

Emirates' senior vice-president fleet Capt Ed Davidson acknowledged that the training cost issue is a barrier that must be faced. He suggested that the airlines might have to co-operate to provide a financing solution that would work for aspiring pilot trainees.