Professional pilot skills are expensive to gain and, for the foreseeable future, expenditure on pilot training will remain essential to the functioning of commercial air transport. Nobody in the global industry is talking realistically about pilotless airliners in the next 25 years, although the spectre of single-pilot operations is looming.
The question for the future is where money for pilot training is going to come from. Twenty years or more ago, a high proportion of airline pilots had been trained by the military, so the airlines did not need to spend on training. Today, although the military-trained supply is much smaller in proportion to the current size of the airline industry - and will continue to get smaller - most of the Western world's airlines have ignored the need to set up a system that would ensure a sustainable alternative supply of professional pilots. They are not used to paying for pilot training, and they do not wish to change.
Most states have not yet considered the fact that pilot skills, at the professional level, are important to their national economy. Even if they do invest in some higher grade human professional skills for the good of society or the economy, or both, pilot skills have not been in the frame. Medicine and engineering, however, usually attract either total or partial subsidy.
Not long ago the military was the major single supplier of pilots to the carriers so, in effect, the government was the biggest provider of flying skills to the civil sector. This is no longer true: the military sector has contracted, commercial air transport has burgeoned in relative terms, and the golden days in which the airlines could rely upon a supply of virtually free high-level piloting skills have gone forever.
Meanwhile the airlines, currently in recession's trough, are being temporarily buoyed by the wave of experienced pilots laid off by failed or struggling carriers, plus the supply of recently qualified, debt-laden self-sponsored student pilots who graduated at an unlucky time. The same is true of aircraft engineers, but their training is less expensive, more likely to attract some form of state subsidy, and more transferable to other areas where engineering skills are needed.
The skills shortage soon to be faced by airlines will be unique in aviation history. There is a case for saying governments cannot afford to ignore it any more than the carriers can.
The recession itself may be partly the product of the economic cycle, but the cyclical pilot shortage, when it returns in about two years - say most forecasters - will not be the old, familiar cyclical shortage. It will be a sustained phenomenon unless the airlines have found a way to replace the military services as a source of pilot and engineer skills.
Few airlines are hiring. Those that are can name their price to job-seeking pilots, and some do just that. Ryanair, displaying its customary confidence, declares: "Ryanair operates a fleet of 212 new Boeing 737-800 aircraft. By the end of March 2010 the fleet will have increased to 232 with firm orders for a further 80 new aircraft which will be delivered over the next 2.5 years. Our recruitment programme is aligned to meet with our planned delivery schedule."
Ryanair's chief pilot Ray Conway says: "Over the next 12 months we will have vacancies for approximately 450 pilots split equally between captains and first officers. The majority of right-hand seat positions will be filled through our long and well-established cadet programmes.
"We have approved two European type rating training organisations - Oxford Aviation Academy in Stockholm and CAE in Amsterdam, to run the cadet programme. Potential cadet candidates, as a minimum, must hold a JAR commercial pilot licence (CPL), have completed the theoretical knowledge for the ATPL(A) licence, hold a certificate of satisfactory completion of an approved multi-crew cooperation course, and have a valid multi-engine instrument rating." Anybody who wants to apply should do so direct to the type rating training organisations, says Conway, and the type rating will cost the "cadet" pilot €25,000 ($35,000).
He adds: "Left-hand seat positions are primarily filled from within the airline, which is our preferred option. Promotional opportunities within the airline are excellent and most cadet pilots can expect to progress to command within three to four years of joining - there is no other airline offering this type of opportunity.
"If there are insufficient co-pilots ready for command, we source suitably qualified direct entry commanders. The bar for direct entry commanders is high. While the minimum entry standards lay down a requirement for 500h P1 on type, the typical successful candidate will have well in excess of 1,000h on the 737 300-900, have operational experience with an established European airline, and the right to work in the EU.
"As with all recruitment in Ryanair, there is a simulator assessment, a technical interview and a personnel interview to assess candidate suitability."
The almost unique ability to expand into a collapsing market confers bragging rights, which Ryanair is not slow to take up: "The success of the Ryanair model, combined with unparalleled promotional opportunities, a fleet of modern high-performance aircraft, stable and predictable rosters, job security and a choice of 37 European bases continues to attract high-quality professional pilots.
"In our 23 years of operation we have never experienced a shortage of pilots. We continue to enjoy a high level of applications for our cadet and direct entry pilot positions. When you offer a 5/4 roster fixed, a successful business model that underpins unrivalled job security and the chance to operate from 37 bases across Europe including Sardinia, Malaga, Faro, Rome, Alicante, Sicily, Porto etc it's really not difficult to attract the best."
Ryanair is still hiring pilots
As usual, Ryanair is disarmingly honest. But when does a Ryanair pilot get paid? Conway explains that the "cadet" applying for a first-officer position with a CPL/IR and frozen ATPL but no type rating, has to pay a training organisation €25,000 for a 737-800 type rating that will also prepare him/her for Ryanair standard operating procedures.
The cadet then joins the line, unpaid, as a second officer for base training, and operates on the line, unpaid, until successful completion of a line check. After passing the line check the pilot gets his/her first pay cheque. The new pilot is not bonded to remain with the airline for any minimum period.
The question Ryanair does not answer is how much the "new kids" are paid to start, and whether they were guaranteed a minimum number of flying hours a month, given that a Ryanair pilot's pay is based on the amount of flying.
EasyJet has a similar programme, according to would-be pilots, but unlike Ryanair - and despite repeated requests - the airline offered Flight International no-one to discuss pilot recruitment directly.
The result of this situation is that self-sponsored pilots arrive on line with massive debt - about €100,000 - and having taken the entire risk of their investment on themselves. The airlines accept none of the cost and take none of the risk.
In an economy like the present one, the argument runs, that is a good deal for pilot hopefuls. The question remains, is it sustainable? How many "rich kids" are there with the necessary talent and dedication? Will the Ryanair-type model remain sufficiently attractive to persuade them to continue to invest, especially absorbing all the risk themselves?
Europe's largest regional airline, Exeter, UK-based Flybe, is aware of all these aspects of the skills shortage threat. It is quietly getting on with doing something sustainable about it by working with the UK government agency Ofqual, the office of qualifications and examinations, and GoSkills, the transport industry-specific part of the Sector Skills Council.
GoSkills' remit is to ensure training is available for recognised skills that enable the performance of essential functions in the transport industry. Apart from cabin crew, only ground-based aviation skills are now recognised for a national occupational standard, and there are few of those. Flybe expects this to change.
The guiding principle for GoSkills is the concept of what skills it takes to provide "the customer journey". In other words, any training organisation that provides a complete skillset that enables a transport industry employee to play a part in providing the customer with a safe, secure, efficient, punctual journey could, theoretically, be approved to provide a specific qualification that is accepted as a national occupational standard.
In its multi-pronged approach to training, Flybe is working not only with GoSkills but with colleges and universities to create vocational courses. These will cover a number of occupational skills for commercial aviation that would be accepted as national occupational standards, potentially attracting state vocational skills training subsidy in one form or another, whether via college funding or tax breaks.
Flybe has already done that for cabin crew training and its own trainee maintenance engineers by working with Exeter College and the University of Exeter. The workforce development director at GoSkills, Vicki Ball, explains that, traditionally, skills development funding has been directed well beneath degree level - which puts in context the reason why Flybe's national vocational qualification (NVQ) for cabin crew was the first qualification it was able to recognise. But Ball says now that "apprenticeships are at the top of the [training] agenda".
Meanwhile, Flybe is setting up its new Flybe Training Academy for pilots, aircraft maintenance engineers, cabin crew, and a range of ground skills. The academy is expected to be fully operational by early 2011.
Flybe's chosen route to making pilot training truly vocational is to use the multi-crew pilot licence (MPL) system. Under this system, student pilots are taken on by the airline with direct progression through airline-subsidised training, a type rating for - in Flybe's case - the Bombardier Q400, into the right-hand seat of that aircraft on the line.
Flybe will then provide the new MPL pilots with base training, line training and line acceptance checks. The combination of a £20,000 ($32,000) direct investment in the MPL course by the airline, plus direct progression to line flying, makes the airline rare.
Flybe's head of crew training Brian Watt points out that the carrier's philosophy of gaining official recognition for formally taught vocational aviation skills of all kinds - ground and air - and providing continual advancement training for employees, will provide those who want it with a complete career path within the airline.
Progression within the company will not be based on the old silo-type system that creates a narrow, specialist skillset in each employee, he explains, but options for career advancement will be more organic. Employees will be able to develop their skills and take them laterally as well as upward.
This company culture, he predicts, combined with the quality of life that comes with a job at a multi-base regional carrier, especially when contrasted with the increasingly unstable nature of the job market in the traditional carriers, will persuade more highly skilled people to stay with Flybe. He admits that, like other regionals, Flybe has resented being a supplier of skills to the big airlines, and he is working to change that.
Meanwhile, the carrier is taking advantage of the dawning of political recognition in the UK that, until recently, the government had been concentrating too much of its resources on developing "low-grade" occupational skills, according to Flybe's director of safety, quality and training Simon Witts, who is on GoSkills' board of directors.
It is this new government awareness that provides hope for vocational pilot training, on the grounds that a pilot course provides high-grade skills and academic knowledge across many disciplines, from meteorology to aerodynamics.
Witts says that GoSkills hopes to have sanctioned a system that has delivered results by 2012. The year 2012 is laden with political significance for the transport industry in the UK because it is the year in which London hosts the Olympic Games.
The UK's transport system hopes to be ready to deliver millions of Olympics-generated successful "customer journeys" over and above the workload that they would normally have expected to manage in that period. Improved employee skills and system quality control would help deliver satisfied customers.
But although this process is UK-focused, Witts points out, it could be used as the basis for creating European standards, via the European Aviation Safety Agency and the European Commission. After all, Europe has had a standard professional pilot licence since 2000, so why not other standards?
Witts notes that existing European professional driver competency standards for buses and coaches were drawn up for UK drivers. Meanwhile, some countries have already started down a similar skills recognition route - for example Norway has a recognised national qualification for cabin crew training.
A previous attempt in the UK to get government to approve a professional pilot vocational skills course to NVQ level, making the course tax-exempt, foundered when pilots who only wanted to gain leisure piloting skills abused it. That, Watt explains, is what makes the MPL system more likely to work, because it does not depend on getting a private pilot's licence en-route, and the MPL is not awarded until the pilot has completed a type rating for the aircraft operated by the sponsoring carrier.
The MPL system's weakness, seen from certain points of view, is that it depends on an absolute commitment by the student and the mentoring airline, a commitment that will survive the cruel vagaries of the marketplace during the 18-month course, and that will guarantee to see the pilot in line employment from the day of graduation from type rating training.
Flybe, however, likes the MPL format precisely because it provides more than just an individual with a CPL. It provides a pilot who has been trained throughout the multi-engined phase using Flybe standard operating procedures in environments that mirror the airlines' own operations.
Flybe's new academy at Exeter airport will be training its own MPL students for the Q400 type rating in its own simulators, and presenting them with their licences on completion.
Although the proposed qualifications appear to be measures of formalised knowledge and manual dexterity, Witts says management skills need to be embodied as well. With that in mind it is working with Plymouth and Exeter colleges on a foundation degree that will embody airside operations, leadership and management under a programme known as Airline Education Southwest. By next year, he says, there will be 20 Flybe employees who have completed the airside operations course and another 20 who have passed the leadership and management module.
There is a great deal of co-ordination to be carried out to achieve this aim of rationalising the formal provision of recognised aviation skills to a national occupational standard. As well as working with GoSkills, Flybe works within an industry umbrella organisation, the Aviation Industry Group, representing airlines, airports and the regulator. The latter, the Civil Aviation Authority, is highly supportive of its programme, according to Witts.
Flybe's aim in setting up its new training academy is simple, according to Watt. Its purpose is, first and foremost, to supply Flybe with skills it needs in its own employees. Additional capacity - and there will be some - will be offered on the third-party marketplace. Its resources will include full flight simulation for the Bombardier Q400 and the Embraer 170-195 series, cabin door simulators for both those series, and courses embracing all the expertise that Flybe has assembled over the years, including technical training and airside specialisations. Some of these will be offered in conjunction with the local colleges.
Apart from the product that its passengers see and the training it provides, Flybe has hangars bursting with third-party maintenance, repair and overhaul work on types it flies and most other regional aircraft, including the BAE Systems 146/RJ series that it operated itself until recently. Meanwhile it has six pilot students going through their MPL at Oxford Aviation Academy and another six at Flight Training Europe.
Flybe has pumped £20,000 into each of those MPLs, and will take on the graduates from September. When they hit the Q400 line the new first officers will start on a salary of £25,000 and be bonded for five years. If they are bright, they will be captains before the five years is up.
Their styles and operational scales may be at the opposite ends of a spectrum, but Flybe and Ryanair are unusual as they are recruiting. Airlines in western Europe that are hiring are rare. Carriers that are hiring and building a long-sighted, sustainable recruiting programme are not just rare - there is only one.