Air shows like Farnborough and Paris attract many companies selling specialist services, but at their core these big events are about hardware. Most hardware, however, requires skilled "liveware" to operate it, and suppliers of skills are rather less in evidence.

Meanwhile, airlines seem to be starting to order aircraft in respectable numbers again after a period in which cancellations or postponements dominated. The Emirates order in June for another 32 Airbus A380s - bringing its planned A380 fleet to 90 aircraft - just happens to be the most spectacular of a steady stream of new contracts.

As orders accelerate, however, rather less thought seems to have been given to who is going to fly the new aeroplanes. Sure enough, there are plenty of furloughed pilots, but that supply will not last long when the recovery establishes. Emirates is running a roadshow looking to recruit 700 pilots, but it needs the more experienced ones. The ab initio pilot supply is the problem for the medium and long term.

Emirates A380 signing
 © Billypix
Emirates signed a deal for a further 32 Airbus A380s at the ILA Berlin air show in June

But action by big airlines such as Emirates, which are seeking experienced aircrew, starts "a circulation", says Mike Watt, chief executive of UK-based Cabair College of Air Training. When some of the regionals or smaller scheduled carriers start to lose pilots to the majors, the regionals start recruiting from low-hour pilots with commercial licences, maybe bringing them straight from graduation or pulling them out of instructing and other general aviation jobs.

And although Watt acknowledges that there is little demand for low-hour pilots among the western European carriers apart from the big low-cost carriers such as EasyJet and Ryanair, eastern Europe is hiring, and so is Asia. Any recent graduate from ab initio training can find a job somewhere if he/she is willing to travel, he says.

The evidence of the looming global need is there for all to see. The current firm order backlog for the global airline industry stands at well over 7,500 aircraft, as listed by Flightglobal's Insight Fleetwatch from its ACAS database, and although a few monthly cancellations still feature, they are now dramatically outnumbered by new orders. And that does not include the inevitable order announcements held for release at Farnborough.

Boeing forecasts a global need for 448,000 new airline pilots to enter the industry over the next 20 years, and more than half a million new maintenance engineers. Recession, what recession? But many carriers are not carrying out pilot and engineer supply planning

Flybe pilot training
 © Flybe

Long-term forecast demand for airline pilots and mechanics is significantly higher than it was before the global economic recession, say new figures from Boeing's Training and Flight Services division. The company estimates that the average annual airline pilot demand for the next 20 years will be for 22,500 new pilots and 28,000 new mechanics to replace those retiring, and to cope with growth in the global airline fleet. Just two years ago in 2008, the Training and Flight Services division's forbear, Alteon, forecast that the average annual global industry needs for the 20 years from 2007 would be 18,000 pilots and 24,000 maintenance engineers.

North America heads the league in terms of the number of pilots it will need in the next two decades, at 112,000 (forecast by Alteon in 2008 at 98,000) and Europe follows at 97,000 (70,000). Other regional predicted requirements are China 61,000 (49,900), South-East Asia and Indonesia 34,000 (32,000), Latin America 32,000 (22,800), north-east Asia 19,000 (19,000), the Middle East 23,000 (17,500), the CIS 20,700 (11,500), Africa 13,200 (10,100) and Oceania 13,000 (7,200).

Boeing's projection of the totals for the next 20 years brings home the sheer size of the task: 448,000 pilots and more than half a million mechanics. This raises the question as to whether the training infrastructure to meet demand can be created in time following the slump in airline investment in ab initio training since the recession began, which has seen capacity in the flight training sector reducing, and investment at flight training organisations put on hold.

The International Air Transport Association, the US Federal Aviation Administration and the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations are all voicing concern about medium- and long-term pilot supply. IATA saw the problem coming back in 2007 when it launched its IATA Training and Qualification Initiative (ITQI) to deal with "the looming shortage of aviation professionals". It describes the need for ITQI as follows: "While the present economic downturn has brought a temporary reprieve to the urgency of this situation, IATA believes the shortage is a long-term issue. Therefore, we have not changed our goals or commitment to addressing this issue."

IATA works with the International Civil Aviation Organisation on ITQI, which is complementary to ICAO's Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP) programme. IATA describes ITQI's three main goals: "To modernise and revolutionise training and qualification schemes, focusing on competency-based training, including the multi-crew pilot licence [MPL]; to identify the means to improve the attractiveness of our industry to younger generations and thereby increase the size of the pool of qualified candidates; to co-ordinate our efforts globally through harmonization and market permeability to meet the needs of the future."

In the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration is already beginning to worry about what the safety consequences for the US airline industry will be when the major carriers start recruiting pilots from the regionals, then the regionals start recruiting flying instructors from the flight training organisations to replace pilots lost to the majors, and the training industry consequently becomes seriously short of instructors.

This matters more in North America than elsewhere because the continent has no tradition of ab initio trainees going straight into the right hand seats of majors. Ab initio pilots are processed through instructional work, general aviation and the regionals. MPL for the majors, according to present US tradition, is unthinkable.

Although a pilot shortage has happened before in the USA, this time it will arrive while the FAA is carrying out an unprecedented review of the whole process of preparing pilots for airline service, in the light of lessons learned from the fatal Colgan Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 accident at Buffalo, New York in 2009. The crew were FAA-licensed to fly commercial public transport aircraft, but somehow had avoided learning how to recognise and recover from a stall.

Mike Watts' Cabair College of Air Training attracts mostly self-sponsored student pilots, and he says he is encouraged by how many are prepared, even during a recession like this, to invest in flying skills. At present CCAT has nearly 100 students at its Cranfield base at various stages of their training, and some 40 have just celebrated their graduation. Representatives of Flybe were there to celebrate with four of the CCAT graduates who are joining their line.

But times are still tight, says Watt, and flight training organisations like his are having to survive the drought while awaiting the return of the rains. When the rain does come, it looks like being a monsoon.

Source: Flight Daily News