Cheaper training alone will not solve the pilot shortage problem

David Learmount/LONDON

The air transport industry appears to have created a formula for self-destruction. Young people are turning away from careers as airline pilots, recent surveys report. The supply of ex-military pilots is drying up as military forces shrink, while the air transport industry continues to enjoy an apparently inexorable growth in long-term market demand for its product. Airlines are getting short of pilots, but investing in a system to train ab initio recruits does not appear to be on their agenda.

Perhaps the single most obvious obstacle in the pilot supply chain, both from the airline and the trainee's point of view, is the cost of training at the career entry level. At Flight International 's 17-18 April Crew Management Conference in Barcelona, Spain, several methods for reducing training costs were put forward: making better use of computer-based training, including distance learning via the Internet; and not using advanced simulators for the increasing number of training or learning tasks which could be achieved using low-cost devices, including PC-based simulators.

Distance learning can improve the value of training systems, since, without having to attend a college or leave their job, students can learn the theory of flight, aircraft engines and systems, and the academic side of becoming a pilot. The system does not have all the advantages of a fully integrated flying course in which theory is put into practice as it is learned, but it gives potential pilots an alternative entry route.

Earning while learning

The UK's Oxford Aviation College and the specialist aviation academic school PPSC both run European Joint Aviation Authorities- approved distance-learning courses which almost halve the direct cost of preparing for written examinations, and add the ability to continue earning while learning. These internet-based courses also aid learning by being interactive, and through animated graphics of moving parts or diagrams of flight profiles, unlike hard copy graphics.

But even if the cost barrier were overcome, flying as a career appears to be less attractive to today's youth than to previous generations, it was revealed at the Barcelona conference. The resulting shortage, however, is not news to the industry. At the grass roots level, the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots' Association is trying to arrest a membership drain approaching 10% a year. Although it still has 360,000 members, president Phil Boyer says: "If we are to recover ground lost during the past decade we must draw more people into flying." General aviation, apart from being the field in which the seeds of aviation career interest are often sown, will become the main original source of a progressively greater proportion of the world's pilots as the military supply reduces.

Meanwhile, the need is increasing dramatically. Passenger and freight aircraft will increase from about 14,000 today to more than 28,000 by 2018, Boeing predicts in its Market Outlook. More recently, the US manufacturer has predicted that the freight market will triple in size in the next 30 years.

Using Boeing's figures and those for the world's professional pilot population, Air Malta's chief pilot Capt Norman D'Amato reveals that there are seven crews (14 pilots) per aircraft today - the number needed for maximum use of today's aircraft in an international airline. According to his study of current pilot training rates (8,800 a year worldwide) and forecast retirement patterns, D'Amato predicts that there will be 5.5 crews per aircraft by 2008 and four crews per aircraft by 2018.

Swissair Group carrier Crossair, which operates a large fleet of jets and turboprop aircraft on domestic and international routes, recognised a significant shortage - about 25% - of suitable pilot recruits, and says it has to employ expatriates on short-term contracts. Crossair commissioned Swiss pilot training school Horizon to carry out a study to find out why the shortage existed and what could be done about it. Horizon surveyed a large sample of Swiss high school students (aged 16-19) who satisfied the requirements to be pilot trainees. It concluded that "a large number" were "capable of becoming pilots", but that too few were interested. Women, the study observed, were less interested than men. Only about 18% of students thought the job was sufficiently interesting or conferred enough social status to attract them.

Irregular working hours and disruption to family life topped the list of students' objections to becoming pilots. This surprised Crossair, says its flight safety and security chief Matthias Schmid. The airline surmises that young people, already concerned about the relative instability of modern family relationships, do not want to raise the risks still further with a disruptive lifestyle. There is a further question as to whether more qualified young people will be drawn into information technology and exploitation of the "" revolution.

More predictably, high training costs were a barrier to serious interest. More than 45% of potential candidates, accustomed to a system - like most of Europe - in which all education and most career training is free, said that they would not be prepared to spend any money on their pilot training. Only 8% would pay the full cost.

Another factor cited as discouraging to potential pilots was that there is no guarantee of work after training.

Possible solutions include:

• first class pre-training aptitude test and selection procedure;

• guaranteed work contracts;

• listen to career concerns;

• provide finance solutions to training costs;

• provide loans or scholarships;

• develop cheaper training systems;

• promote flying as a career, acknowledging the specific need to attract more women.

In the long term, Crossair suggests, there should be "an aviation branch in the education/school system to provide a basic knowledge of the skills needed by both ground and air personnel in civil aviation". At a more advanced educational level, the study cites France's Ecole Nationale de l'Aviation Civile and the USA's Embry Riddle Aeronautical University as role models for other nations to take up. Not only are pilots in short supply, says Crossair, but also engineers, air traffic controllers, flight dispatchers, and airline and airport passenger handling staff.

On the other hand, the chief pilot of US domestic carrier Southwest Airlines, Capt Ken Gile, does not see a pilot shortage affecting his airline. Southwest Airlines still demands that its pilot recruits pay the cost of their induction course and type conversion onto the Boeing 737. Although the flying hours requirement for the airline is 2,500h, Gile says Southwest's average successful applicant still has 4,000h. He ascribes this to Southwest's reputation as an exceptional employer. Smaller US airlines, particularly the turboprop-operating regionals, are feeling the pinch. Midwest Express chief executive Tim Hoeksema says that not having enough pilots "has resulted in lower employee productivity and less efficient use of fixed costs" during the first quarter of 2000. Meanwhile, Southwest's Gile maintains that the larger carriers (Southwest has 3,260 pilots for a fleet of 319 737s) will still be cushioned from the regionals' shortages because the smaller airlines will reduce the number of pilot qualifying hours at joining from 1,500h to 500h. He acknowledges, however, that the weak point in the pilot supply system is at the flying schools, where the regionals recruit many junior pilots. Graduate pilots build their hours by instructing at the flying schools. For more than a year now even Embry Riddle has admitted problems retaining its instructors because the airlines are creaming them off earlier. Its problem is universal among the US schools.

Resources for real airborne training are scarce and this will push prices up, because schools are increasing instructor pay to retain them. The only area in which a new initiative appears to offer the chance to reduce prices is distance learning via the Internet. This will reduce spending, but costs will still be high.

Source: Flight International