A serious shortage of airline pilots is causing US and European training traditions to converge

David Learmount/LONDON


US regional airlines are advertising for young, qualified pilots with 800h flying time. Only two years ago, taking on pilots with less than 2,000h would have been unthinkable. But within a few months, US training industry executives expect that 600h will be acceptable and believe the downward trend will not stop there - especially as the new age of the regional jet gets into top gear.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the tradition of some airlines sponsoring cadet pilots through ab initio flying training is disappearing. It is being replaced by airline schemes that guarantee jobs for carefully selected young trainee pilots only if they finance their own training - a procedure Lufthansa has followed for several years. In the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions, airline sponsorship of pilot training appears likely to survive longer because a career as an airline pilot is not as highly valued there as it is in the West.

Economic pressures and industry growth are forcing European and US pilot training cultures to converge. On both sides of the Atlantic, the airlines' favourite pilot applicants are still those who cost them nothing. The perfect applicant is young, but fully qualified and experienced, trained by the military or another airline.

The military supply is shrinking, however, as the airline industry grows, and the pilot shortage is in danger of causing the whole system to collapse, starting with the training industry in the USA. The majors are poaching captains from the regionals and the regionals are poaching instructors from the flying schools. This is a critical situation for US training organisations such as the Centre for Aviation Training at the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, which is trying to recruit instructors from Australia.

Training school survival


At its recent annual meeting, the US Regional Airlines Association said it could not see how the schools were going to survive because of the rate at which the regional airlines were poaching their instructors.

Training quality could plummet because there will soon be no hard core of experienced instructors in the USA - only the "time-builders" who have just completed the course which they then must teach. Traditionally, course graduates have had to gather the necessary flying time before they become attractive to the airlines as first officers. But now that the regionals are recruiting pilots with fewer hours, there is less need to build time, so the main source of instructors is disappearing.

Embry Riddle's aeronautical science programme co-ordinator, Peter Rounseville, says that the graduates, who complete a four-year degree course in aeronautical science, including flying licence training, are becoming increasingly popular with the regionals despite their low hours. The carriers are "recognising the value of an education", he says, giving it as much, if not more, credit than college graduation, plus extensive hours in whatever kind of flying he or she can get.

The national and major carriers come to Embry Riddle to pick the best, says Rounseville, but the apprenticeship system prevents even these top graduates from getting airborne. They are used as systems and procedures instructors for up to three years before climbing into the right-hand seat of a line aircraft. The theory is that this keeps airline costs down by using cheap instructors instead of line pilots to give classroom training for type conversions.

Training captains at European airlines express surprise at this system because it keeps high-quality, lower-paid new pilots in classrooms instead of putting them in the air where they could do the job of more experienced, more expensive line pilots who otherwise would have to be recruited. Meanwhile, say the Europeans, computer-based training (CBT) has all but eliminated classroom work on systems and procedures.

The new European Joint Aviation Requirements for flightcrew licensing (JAR FCL) have made it illegal for inexperienced time-builders to give instruction at an "approved" (fully licensed) flying training school. To teach potential airline pilots, instructors must have a full commercial pilot's licence (CPL) and instructor's rating. What used to be known as a basic CPL, or its equivalent, has been abolished.

Collapsing barriers

Another transatlantic cultural barrier about to collapse is a recent innovation - the JAR FCL requirement for schools that train pilots for European licences to have their headquarters and main place of business in a Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) country. After being challenged by the USA as illegally protectionist, this clause is proposed for amendment, with opposition from European schools weakening as they see the advance of globalism into their industry not only as inevitable, but also as presenting opportunities to their businesses.

Western Michigan University, at Battle Creek, is unique in having a foot in both Europe and the USA. Its International Pilot Training Centre (IPTC) trains cadet pilots for Aer Lingus, British Airways and Emirates Airlines. These young pilots will be flying line jets within a year of arriving back in Ireland, the UK or the United Arab Emirates.

By catering for the needs of overseas airlines familiar with the ab initio culture, Western Michigan has anticipated the latest US requirement for high-quality pilots with low hours.

Before JARFCL was implemented, the university's IPTC was one of three overseas schools that the UK Civil Aviation Authority had licensed to carry out training to its "CAP 509" standard - the UK airline pilot training syllabus. The UK training standards and syllabus have now been harmonised with JAR FCL, and Western Michigan has converted to the JAR FCL syllabus.

Theoretically, however, Europe's airline pilots can no longer train at Western Michigan for a JAA licence because of the geographical location clause in JARFCL. British Airways and Aer Lingus, however, are taking advantage of the fact that JARs are agreed standards, not law, and they are training their students at the university for UK licences. The Irish Civil Aviation Authority has traditionally accepted UK licences for direct conversion to Irish ones, so Aer Lingus pilots win their Irish licences by training in the USA to a European syllabus for a British licence.

The graduates may end up with national licences, not European ones, but because most Aer Lingus and BA pilots stay with their airline for their whole career, this poses no problem for the airline or the pilots.

This is also a good example of why attempts to protect training markets are unlikely to work in the long run.

The IPTC is required to use a high proportion of JAR-FCL-trained instructors - at least two for every three US-trained instructors. The US instructors must be licensed to train to the JAA syllabus and have at least 1,000h experience. All this makes the JAA's training more expensive than the FAA's, but it is good value when conducted in the USA compared with Europe, where taxes and airport charges are higher.

Alongside its IPTC, Western Michigan trains US Federal Aviation Administration flying students. Here graduates can become instructors as soon as they have the rating, and accept low salaries in accordance with the US hours-building tradition.

Retaining instructors is a serious problem, says IPTC head Dave Thomas. Western Michigan has just awarded them a 12% pay rise in the hope of keeping them longer. Thomas has "no doubt" that the regionals will soon drop their hours requirement from 800h to 600h, and that there will be further reductions.

Regional visits


The regionals make frequent visits to Western Michigan, offering jobs to the best students once they reach the going rate of minimum hours. The University of North Dakota has had an agreement for more than a year with Seattle-based regional Horizon Air to supply pilots.

Thomas says that pilots from schools such as Western Michigan, Embry Riddle and the University of North Dakota, where they graduate with aeronautics degrees as well as a pilot's licences, will become progressively more desirable to airlines looking for pilots to crew their new, fast-expanding commuter jet fleets. "United Express and the others are going to need real quality," says Thomas, who reveals that Northwest and Delta are interested in ab initio pilots, but have made no commitments.

Bob Flocke of the Air Line Pilots Association says this is the inevitable result of market forces, and the union has no argument with low-hours pilots joining airlines as long as their training has been good enough. Because ALPA is represented at the Council for Aviation Accreditation - which vets training courses, including their syllabus and execution - the union is content that the approved schools produce students with the skills required to fly for an airline.

But the problem for which no one has yet provided a solution, says Western Michigan's Thomas, is where to find the instructors to train the students on these first-class courses.

Source: Flight International