SA2008: Australia's Rex calls on govt to let foreign pilots in

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Regional Express (Rex) is lobbying the Australian Government to make it easier for foreign pilots to migrate to Australia in an effort to overcome the country’s shortage of qualified commercial pilots.

“Traditionally Australia produces 500 pilots a year but we anticipate that over the next 18 months Australia will need” 2,000 new pilots, Rex chairman Lim Kim Hai told ATI at the Singapore Airshow during a Saab Aircraft Leasing press briefing.

Rex is acutely aware of the problem of pilot shortage because in recent months it has had to temporarily suspend services to some parts of regional Australia because it has too few pilots to operate its Saab 340s.

Rex has responded to the problem by establishing its own pilot training school which currently has the first intake, of 16 cadets, and will be producing 20 graduates every three months.

But Lim says the carrier is also speaking to the Government to try and have the country’s immigration laws changed to make it easier for the airline industry to recruit foreign pilots.

“If someone wants to migrate to Australia and they are a hairdresser then they get” points under the country’s skilled migration programme but “if they are a commercial pilot they get zero points”, says Lim. To be accepted as a skilled migrant to Australia, applicants need to achieve a certain score based a number of criteria such as education, qualifications and job history.

Lim says Rex needs to recruit more pilots because the airline is currently experiencing an attrition rate of at least 60% per year.

“One-third are leaving to join Virgin Blue, one-third Jetstar and 10-15% Qantas mainline,” says Lim, referring to two of the country’s fastest growing low-cost carriers in addition to Qantas Airways.

Rex’s main bases are in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Qantas and Jetstar are based in Sydney and Melbourne respectively.

Lim says Rex has smaller bases in regional cities and the attrition rate for pilots in these places is much lower.

“The pilots based in the country have taken a lifestyle decision”, meaning they want to live with their family in a country area and are less willing to work for a larger airline because it would involve moving to the city, he says.

Rex currently has 38 Saab 340s, according to Flight’s ACAS database, plus Lim says Airlink, a subsidiary in Dubbo, has two Beech 1900Ds, although this smaller airline has had to delay getting more Beech aircraft.

“It [Airlink] was planning to” get more aircraft “but didn’t because we don’t have enough pilots so the priority goes to the bigger aircraft,” says Lim.

The pilot shortage also meant that Rex late last year had to delay its further push into the Queensland market. Rex mostly serves the Australian states of New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria but last year started serving Brisbane in Queensland.

Lim says Rex chose to expand into Queensland – rather than into Western Australia or the Northern Territory – because it “is a natural choice” and Rex was already serving towns on the border with Queensland and this state is still close to Sydney in New South Wales.

He says Rex plans to resume its push into Queensland and claims there is relatively little competition in this market. The two major players there are QantasLink and MacAir.