Pilots wanted

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Runaway aviation growth in Asia has brought its own problems: can airlines find enough staff to fly the increasing numbers of aircraft? 

Phenomenal growth in Asia sparked by the global recovery in aviation and the launch of significant numbers of new carriers, particularly in markets undergoing deregulation, has brought its own problem – a shortage of pilots. The crisis in two of the region’s largest and fastest-growing markets, China and India, is so severe that leading industry players and governments are being forced to act.

airlines are investing more on pilot triainingBoeing has forecast that Chinese domestic traffic will grow 8.8% a year on average over the next two decades and the US aircraft manufacturer says total traffic – air travel for all markets to, from and within China – will grow at 7.3% annually.

India’s government, meanwhile, says the country’s air transport sector has averaged 7% growth a year over the past three years, and from 2000-10 the annual growth rate is expected to average 16%.

China’s state-owned carriers have been working to increase fleet size to aid the launch of domestic and international services. Growth in airline traffic has also been fuelled by a spate of private start-ups including Okay Airways in Tianjin, Spring Airlines in Shanghai and United Eagle in Chengdu. In terms of aircraft, Boeing forecasts that from 2004-24 China’s commercial fleet, excluding Taiwan, will rise by about 2,500 aircraft, from 891 to 3,239.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) recognises that the rapid growth in the commercial aircraft fleet is leading to a shortage of pilots. In December 2004 the CAAC’s flight standards department disclosed that the country needed to recruit 12,000 pilots from then to 2010, but pointed out that China’s two certified pilot training schools could train only 850-900 pilots a year, with the CAAC Flying College in Sichuan accounting for 600-700 and the China Southern West Australian Flying College near Perth in Australia training 150-200.

Consequently, the CAAC has allowed privately owned pilot-training schools to open. “We have to find many channels and sources to provide pilots, not just government schools,” says an official in the CAAC flight standards department in Beijing.

Beijing PanAm International Aviation Academy is the first privately owned commercial pilot training school in China and a few weeks ago became the first flight school to receive China Civil Aviation Regulation (CCAR) 141 approval. Since January 2005 all new flight schools in China have been required to have CCAR 141 certification, which was introduced to meet international requirements, particularly International Civil Aviation Organisation standards. The Beijing official adds that “before [CCAR 141] there were not very complete regulations for flight schools”.

New schools

Beijing PanAm International Aviation Academy has begun ab initio training, with Hainan Airlines sending trainee pilots there. The academy will soon to be joined by new schools that have applied for CCAR 141, including Flying Dragon School’s Harbin International Flight Training Centre in Harbin. The Qingdao Jiutian Spartan Flight Academy in Shandong also planned to apply in late January for certification. The latter is a joint venture between US-based Spartan School of Aeronautics and local partners, including Shandong Airlines.

Meanwhile, the main source of pilots remains the two government-backed commercial pilot training schools, which have until July this year to comply with CCAR 141. The Beijing official says the CAAC Flying College and China Southern Flying School are on track to meet the deadline. In addition, each is working to increase the number of pilots they train. The school in Sichuan, for example, has raised its intake to 1,200 this year. But the CAAC official believes it will take years before the higher input bears fruit.

John Bent, director of Hong Kong-based aviation consultancy Aviation Solutions Asia and former Asia managing director of General Electric Commercial Aviation Training, says it takes roughly three years for a trainee to graduate. Some will drop out during or after the course, so there is no perfect correlation between the number of trainee pilots and number of pilots graduating, he says. Bent adds that the dearth of general aviation in China has also contributed to the pilot shortage.

While China’s pilot training schools and general aviation sector struggle to meet airline demand for more commercial pilots, the CAAC last year standardised and updated regulations in an effort to help airlines wishing to employ foreign crew.

Standardising regulations means the CAAC’s offices across the country have exactly the same set of regulations, which now spell out more clearly what is required, says the CAAC official in Beijing. About 70 foreign pilots have valid licences to work in China, but only one carrier employs a significant number – about 30 fly with Shenzhen Airlines.

Aviation recruitment specialists believe this number could swell when China begins this year to receive the first of huge numbers of aircraft it has on order. The pilots most in demand are likely to be captains with international experience because many of the local captains have never flown an aircraft beyond the Chinese border and newly trained pilots will need time to gain experience.

However, China may need to absorb the lesson learned by new Indian carriers a nd increase the relatively low salaries on offer before overseas pilots book their tickets to the east. When Indian start-ups advertised for pilots last year there was initially no response, forcing them to raise salaries to make them more comparable with international levels. Like China, India is grappling with pilot shortages caused by state-owned airlines expanding and a plethora of privately owned carriers launching.

State-owned Air India last month signed a firm order for 68 Boeing 737s, 777s and 787s after Boeing and GE agreed set up four full-flight simulators in India, establish maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities worth up to $100 million and provide training worth up to $10 million. Boeing has agreed to invest in training as part of package of concessions made to the Indian government.

Air India director of public relations Jitender Bhargava says the airline is considering establishing an aviation academy near Mumbai in a joint venture partnership with Boeing. The academy will train pilots as well as maintenance personnel and cabin crew. Bhargava says it is unclear if the aviation academy will offer ab initio training, but it will offer simulator training. Air India offers no ab initio training and instead relies on the Indira Ghandi Rashtriya Uran Academy in Rae Bareli.

Air India has an agreement with the academy, under which it will provide additional funding and in turn be given first priority and, possibly, all the school’s graduates. The school is also about to increase its graduate numbers to 50 a year from 30.

Meanwhile, India’s other state-owned carrier Indian Airlines expects to sign a formal purchase agreement in February for 43 Airbus A320-family aircraft for delivery from October 2006 to March 2010.

These two legacy carriers already have some in-house training facilities, including flight simulators, but only Jet Airways of the country’s private carriers so far owns a training device. One of Jet’s rivals, Air Deccan, plans to build a training centre, either at the Jakkur Aerodrome outside Bangalore, or on government-owned land near the new Bangalore airport and aims to open it next year to coincide with the arrival of its first A320 and ATR simulators. Air Deccan also hopes to offer ab initio training because, says Capt P K Gupta, adviser to the carrier’s chief operating officer, “the other flying schools are not up to the mark”. Air Deccan recruits only qualified pilots, who are then sent to simulator centres overseas such as Alteon Training at London Gatwick for type training.

Kingfisher initiative

Rival low-cost carrier Kingfisher Airlines is also establishing its own training centre, dubbed Kingfisher University, which will train pilots, maintenance engineers and flight attendants. Kingfisher chief operating officer Nigel Harwood says the university is intended to be up and running by mid-2007 at the latest. Harwood says Kingfisher is considering a 2.43Ha (6 acre) site at Thane, outside Mumbai, but is also looking at locations at airfields such as the new Bangalore airport.

Kingfisher will kick off with simulator training and plans to get one ATR and two A320 flight simulators, one next year and one a year or so later, says Harwood. The carrier also plans to offer ab initio training as early as next year and is speaking to two potential partners, he says. The carrier also plans a maintenance centre and is seeking to house the MRO business, simulator and ab initio training centre at one site.

In the meantime, Kingfisher has signed an agreement to use the CAE-Emirates training centre in Dubai to train its A320 pilots. The carrier also sends pilots to Airbus in Toulouse for simulator training and plans to send its would-be ATR 72 pilots to the ATR training centre in Bangkok.

Some Indian airlines have sought help from aircraft manufacturers to overcome the problem of pilot shortages. Bruce Peddle, Embraer Asia Pacific managing director, says the Brazilian manufacturer has been providing pilots to its two major commercial airline customers in India: AirOne and Paramount Airways. “Each programme is tailored to meet the specific operator’s requirements and typically range from one to three pilots up to a 90-day period.” he says. “However, in some cases the quantity and duration of pilot support can be extended to meet specific regulatory requirements or special circumstances.”

Peddle says this support “is a fundamental part of our product offering” and “the pilot shortage in Asia Pacific will increase the demand for this”. He adds that Embraer is “evaluating a potential location for the [Asia Pacific’s] first Embraer 170/190 simulator [and] we anticipate it will be in operation during the second half of 2007.”

The Indian government has taken its own steps to deal with pilot shortages by introducing a rule requiring commercial pilots to give at least six months’ notice. The ministry of civil aviation made the move in September and warned that pilots failing to comply could lose their licences. The government has also moved to increase the pool of pilots available by twice increasing the retirement age, first to 61 from 60 and then to 65, although pilots aged between 60 and 65 must fly with a co-pilot under 60. In addition, the government has tried to increase pilot numbers by reducing the total flying time required for the issue of a commercial pilot’s licence to 200h from 250h.

Ageing population

While the pilot shortage is arguably most severe in China and India, it is a problem elsewhere. In Japan, shortages are a concern because of an ageing population. Japan Airlines (JAL) expects “a slight decrease” in pilot numbers due to retirements and some JAL executives say this decline may impede growth. The government has responded by raising the retirement age of pilots to 65. JAL says it plans to hire “more non-Japanese cockpit crew” and will “make more use of retired Japanese pilots up to the age of 65 who are still in excellent health”.

The carrier says it trains about 60-70 new pilots each year, but has no plans to increase the trainee intake. JAL’s ground school and flight simulator training is at Tokyo Haneda and it sends pilots to the USA for their commercial licences.

Japan’s other major carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA) says it expects about 400 ANA pilots “to retire over the five years from 2007”. ANA each year sends about 50 students to the International Flight Training Academy in the USA for ab initio courses. In future it will also source pilots from Tokyo University, which plans to have ab initio training as part of a four-year degree in aeronautics.

The university’s first intake is planned for April and it has been in talks with the University of North Dakota in the USA for the provision of the flight-training component of the course.

LEITHEN FRANCIS / SINGAPORE