Early this year, when FlightGlobal visited FTA, an independent flight school at Shoreham near Brighton, things looked so promising. Covid-19 had halted all pilot training weeks after co-owner Sean Jacob invested in the business in January 2020. However, after three difficult years – FTA began 2021 with just 20 students, a seventh of its pre-pandemic roster – Jacob was convinced a surge in demand as airlines grappled with a pilot shortage would quickly bring back the good times.
The campus – a handful of buildings at one of the country’s oldest working airports – had a buzz about it as smartly-uniformed trainees sat in classrooms or milled around the break area. In January, student numbers were back up over 100 and Jacob was confident of reaching 280 by the end of 2024. Half a dozen Diamond Aircraft DA40s and DA42s were lined up on the grass taxiway. FTA planned to take delivery of one of the Austrian-built aircraft per month throughout 2023 to bring the fleet to 20.
It was not to be, and in May FTA became the third UK flight college in six months to cease trading, following Dundee’s Tayside Aviation in March, and Bournemouth Commercial Flight Training in late 2022. With dozens of former students up to £90,000 ($114,000) out of pocket, and facing an uncertain future, pilot union BALPA in June called on the UK government and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to step in and regulate flight schools more tightly.
BALPA’s key concern is the practice of flying schools requiring large advance payments. While this is common in paid-for further education, it means students – or their parents – come near last in any list of creditors in a winding-up process. BALPA said the regulator had been negligent in its legal duty to ensure schools prove “evidence of sufficient funding”, and that the CAA should make it a condition of a training organisation’s approval that it does not take upfront payments of more than £5,000.
“Flight schools going bust is financially devastating to hardworking students who deserve to have their money better protected from flight school failures,” says BALPA interim general secretary Miranda Rackley. “Pilot training is among the most expensive training of all professions, and unlike other careers such as law and medicine, there is no student funding available. Government needs to step up and protect students that are so vital to the future of the UK aviation industry.”
Flying schools entering liquidation at a time when the need for trained pilots is as high as it has been – particularly in the USA but increasingly too in Europe – seems paradoxical. Boeing in late July revised upward to 649,000 an earlier prediction for the number of pilots the global aviation industry will require in the next 20 years. In 2022, it had put the figure at 602,000. That follows similarly bullish recent forecasts from training group CAE and others.
However, it comes down to the economic rule that sizing back up can be more perilous than sizing down. From March 2020 until mid-2021 businesses in the UK and elsewhere were protected by government schemes to advance loans and pay the salaries of furloughed staff. Lenders were encouraged not to call in loans. Troubled companies could hunker down and hibernate.
Once these initiatives ended firms faced higher costs and needed to invest. Many simply ran out of cash.
Ironically, both FTA and Tayside Aviation went under not long after being bought by new owners, keen to inject new funds and grow the businesses. Tayside, which had been in existence for more than 50 years, was acquired in January 2022 by entrepreneur Tony Banks, who expressed an ambition to turn it into “an international centre of excellence” by attracting students from beyond the UK.
Banks launched a legal action against the former owners of the school in June.
Zac Chiswell, a 23-year-old from Lanark near Glasgow, was one of those affected by the demise of Tayside Aviation. After completing his private pilot licence after he left high school, Chiswell, who had wanted to fly commercially “since I was six years old”, enrolled on Tayside Aviation’s Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) course in 2019. He – and his parents – were attracted by what he felt were competitive fees and the chance to dual-study remotely for a degree with Middlesex University.
By the time rumours began to spread among his classmates that Tayside was on the brink of collapse, Chiswell and his family had invested about £55,000 in his training. He now realises that the company’s rates – most UK ATPL courses cost around £100,000 – and invoicing methods should have rung warning bells. “They required huge sums up front,” he says. “Students were told regularly: ‘Pay £10,000 now or you can’t attend class on Monday’.”
There were other ominous signs – training aircraft were often grounded because of technical faults. However, when the business was acquired, Chiswell and his parents – who had provided most of the £55,000 – were assured by the new owners that their investment was safe. Now, having completed less than half the ATPL programme, he would need to come up with a further £40,000 or so to finish his training, as well as restarting any degree course from the beginning.
He has been in touch with other flight schools, but he is not confident of ever fulfilling his ambition to be an airline pilot. “I am back to ground zero,” he says. “I thought by choosing Tayside I was helping to support a family business, but they have taken all the money me and my family could come up with.” He adds that his advice to his younger self would be: “Do more research, and speak to previous students, and above all check the school’s financial records very carefully.”
In FTA’s case, there is a further irony. When we spoke to Jacob in January, he insisted that one of the school’s selling points and what set it apart from its competitors was that it did not demand large upfront fees. Student increments were as low as £2,500, in line with one of BALPA’s demands. The company’s inability to generate sufficient cash in advance to meet its outgoings may have been a factor in its demise.