As the airlines suffer, so too does the pilot training industry. Those carriers that are hiring want few graduates. Can the trainers hang on?

If airlines globally - with few exceptions - are cutting costs, shedding employees and flying fewer hours, they have no need to hire pilots. So unless there are enough idealistic young people who still dream of an airline career and will do or pay anything to achieve it, the pilot training industry must be in trouble.

"Dire" is the word most frequently used by European executives to describe the state of the training industry. The word is even used by those whose training organisations are managing - if with difficulty - to weather the storm. There are oases in the hiring desert - mostly low-cost carriers - which are continuing to take on pilots. But in the main they want experienced pilots rather than young ab initio crew, and they sponsor cadets on a payback basis, which calls for a lot of student money up front.

One or two airlines such as Emirates, which is expanding rapidly in the intercontinental market when all about it are retrenching, are also hiring. But they are unusual. Another exception, as the world's largest training school FlightSafety Academy at Vero Beach, Florida, points out, is that the growth of business-jet fractional-ownership schemes has been making the prospect of rewarding lifetime careers in corporate flying a reality. But even that promising market has seen something of a recent downturn.

Traditional cadetships seem only to be offered by some of the Far Eastern and a few of the Middle Eastern airlines, and then only to their own nationals.

No instant airline

The hope for aspiring pilots in the USA is that there are numerous former military aircrew from the Vietnam War era about to retire from senior jobs with the airlines. That, at least, is what the flying colleges are telling them - but they have been saying this for years. FlightSafety Academy Director Dick Skovgaard says that he cannot promise an instant airline for graduates of pilot training and of degree courses in various aviation disciplines. "We have been telling people we don't have a good answer for them," he says, "because there are too many variables." He says it will be two years or so before the airlines begin to take back furloughed crew, hire unemployed experienced crew, and then go looking for the low-hour pilots. Hiring always lags at least six months behind an airline pick-up, Skovgaard says.

Student numbers at FlightSafety are down to a third of the 550 or so that the company used to teach at any one time a few years ago, Skovgaard says. He adds: "On 10 September 2001 we were on the verge of setting up a big deal with NetJets." That foundered in the shadow of the horrific events the following day. Overseas sponsorships are down dramatically - they once made up 20% of the academy's students, says Skovgaard, including trainees from Olympic Airways, Swissair, some Chinese and other Asian carriers. Finally, numbers of self-sponsored pilot trainees are down because the potential students cannot see jobs in prospect.

It is not all gloom, however, says Skovgaard. The four-year degree course produces well-qualified pilots who are popular with the regional carriers - relatively speaking a growth sector in North America and the usual starting point for US pilot careers. Another facet of the course's popularity, even in lean times, is that the qualification provides a degree, even if there is no immediate flying job, and the choice of parallel studies, from management to engineering, is broad.

Courses everywhere are becoming better value in these straitened circumstances. FlightSafety for some time has been adding value by including Level D simulator training, flight upset training in Zlin 242s, and spatial disorientation training, all as a part of the standard degree course, not as bolt-on modules. Following such a complete course means there is another employment option: most of FlightSafety's instructors are its own graduates.

But in the UK, the Bournemouth-based European Pilot Training Academy (EPTA) is offering frozen airline transport pilot's licence modular courses to European Joint Aviation Requirement (JAR) standards for an all-time low of £25,000 ($39,500). That includes jet familiarisation and multicrew co-operation training time in the EPTA simulator. Managing director Colin Green describes the market at present as dire and says that all schools are suffering. "If it was not for overseas students the industry would die," he says.

Paperwork hassle

EPTA students do their fair-weather flying training at Kissimmee near Orlando, Florida, and Green says the tougher US security background checks introduced since 11 September constitute "a paperwork hassle, and you have to go for an interview at the [US] embassy", but he says it does not put off Europeans.

Pilots aspiring to a Joint Aviation Authorities licence, but wanting to train in the USA to the JAR syllabus and then build hours, have only a few choices. The Delta Connection Academy in Orlando offers one option. Students carry out their single-engine training and earn an instructor's rating there, then operate as a paid instructor until they have notched up 900h. After that they come to the UK to carry out their JAA multi-engine instrument rating and multicrew co-operation training with Delta's UK partner Atlantic Flight Training at Coventry airport. Atlantic also runs a full or modular JAA course at its own base for self-sponsored students, and trains pilots for the Air Atlantique Group of ad hoc charter and specialist airwork aircraft - including its historic aircraft flight.

BAE Systems Flight Training marketing and customer services manager Scott Connel, whose company operates a school at Jerez in Spain, says: "Overall, the market still seems to be flat; however, there is an 18-month lead time from starting training to entering the pilot employment market. In 18 months' time the market will be in a different place and indications are it will be more buoyant. Despite the flat market, we are finding a surprising percentage of our self-sponsored graduates are obtaining employment."

UK-based Cabair College of Air Training (CCAT) reports that life is tough, but chief executive Graham Austin says the school has been able to "hedge its bets" by virtue of ongoing contracts with Kuwait Airways and Royal Brunei. There is a trickle of UK airline training activity: regional FlyBe (formerly British European) part-sponsored four students there this year and may do more next year. Austin thinks the worst is over. CCAT dropped a course for lack of students early this year, but he says "interest in the consolidated courses is growing".

CCAT, a member of the Cabair Group, also has the advantage of being able to offer cadetships involving work as flying instructors at its flying clubs. Like FlightSafety's Skovgaard, Austin advises would-be fliers not to wait to start training, arguing that when the upturn comes they will be ready to take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, an experienced senior member of the air training fraternity in Europe says he thinks there are too many flying training organisations in Europe for the market to support, and believes there will be "one major failure" or sell-off in the near future, with owners opting out of an industry that is too dramatically cyclical to make it a good investment, even long term. "This dip is worse than the others because it is so global," he says, adding his belief that it will be two and a half years before the industry really starts to recover. Contracted military pilot training is the only healthy part at present, he says.

The only exceptions in Europe are low-cost carriers. All are recruiting, but they tend first to mop up the experienced pilots who are casualties of cutbacks elsewhere. Between them EasyJet and Ryanair will take delivery of more than 200 aircraft over the next four or five years, and they need to crew them.

EasyJet is to centre its training contract on UK-based CTC for its crew selection, type conversion, recurrent training and command preparation needs, and on CTC-McAlpine for its smaller, but significant, feed of younger ab initio pilots (Flight International, 26 August-1 September). The airline needs 240-290 pilots a year for the next few years, says chief pilot Mike Keane, and while a number of those will be experienced recruits who transfer from regionals or from carriers that have hit hard times, 40-50% will come via a scheme run by CTC, and 40 a year from the CTC-McAlpine ab initio training. These are all schemes in which the student, the school and the airline invest, but the trainees end up repaying out of their salary when hired.

Australian optimism

In Australia, unless the managers of the country's schools are looking at their world through rose-tinted spectacles, the training business sounds generally more upbeat than in almost all other countries.

Gary Young, general and marketing manager of Flight Training Australia (FTA), says he has seen the number of international students increasing - up 25% over the past two years. FTA is based at Brisbane's Archerfield airport. Young believes the market has tipped away from the USA for non-US students.

FTA's airline clients include Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific, Taiwan carrier EVA Air, Gulf Air, Oman Air, Solomon Airlines and Sri Lankan, with between five and 10 students at a time from each airline. Some of these airlines, like EVA, have been long-standing customers, but others have arrived more recently. "Overall, business is certainly not down, and if anything it has increased," says Young.

General Flying Services (GFS) is the largest Australian flight training school and probably the biggest in the southern hemisphere. It has bases at Ayers Rock, Moorabbin airport in Melbourne, and Sydney, operating more than 60 aircraft, including Beech King Airs, Cessna 172Rs and Cessna Citations, flying more than 40,000h a year. GFS says it has not noticed any downturn in business, probably because its activities are not focused in one area. GFS provides training for airlines, but also the practical flying part of a number of Australian universities' aviation degrees, including Swinburne University and RMTI University. On the airline side, it trains Qantas cadets and has won business from China, including Hainan Airlines, and says there has been no drop-off in this business.

The university degree course students do not seem to have been put off a flying career by the air-transport industry downturn, says GFS, because they take a long-term view. The degree courses are generally three years long, then students usually spend a couple of years flying in the general-aviation market before moving to airlines, by which time they expect the situation to have improved. GFS graduates have gone on to Cathay Pacific, Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Virgin Blue.

It is not all roses in Australia, however. BAE Systems' managing director customer solutions and support Harry Bradford says that business is down at its BAE Systems Flight Training school at Parafield airport, Adelaide. Past and present airline customers include Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Qantas and South African Airways. It has a lot of experience of training cadet pilots for mainland Chinese airlines, including China's Civil Aviation Flying College, China Xinhua Airlines, Shanghai Airlines and Xiamen Airlines. New customers this year include Air China, Dragonair and Emirates.

Bradford says: "Clearly, the flight training business took a dive with the war in Iraq. Most of the airlines were hit and cut back on training. There was quite a dramatic fall in business, new orders stopped and existing contracts were cut back. Everything that affects the airlines hits the flight training providers. It was a double whammy, because just as airlines were recovering from Iraq and redoing their training plans, SARS came along."

Bradford says BAE is seeing a rebuilding of training plans now, but it will take time to pick up again and the recovery is likely to continue through the rest of this year and next. The school takes on a "significant number" of self-sponsored students each year. Bradford says this has continued, but at lower rates than previously. He adds that BAE has "an intensely managed cost base", and having reduced its operations in line with reduced demand, it is now in the process of building again, anticipating airline recovery.

BAE also conducts military pilot training in Australia at different bases, which helps because the military business is not as dramatically cyclical as the civil side.

Meanwhile, Australia could become a yet more attractive location for flight training for overseas students when it fully implements its new national airspace system (NAS) plan. NAS is designed to bring US-style procedures and rules to the Australian airspace system. Implementation is under way and is due to be completed next year.

USA still favoured

Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA) has not forsaken US training for its ab initio trainees. The airline says: "We still have our training centre in Bakersfield, which is for ANA, ANA Group and EVA Air trainees. The only effect of the US security clearance measures has been to lengthen the application process. We have no reluctance in sending trainees to the USA and are not looking for alternative facilities."

Dubai-based Emirates is the only long- and medium-haul airline in the world that is expanding significantly. Its senior vice-president flight operations Chris Knowles says it will be training 30 ab initio pilots a year, but over the next 18 months it needs a total of "about 200 pilots", compared with the 850 pilots already with the airline. Knowles forecasts that Emirates will employ 2,000 pilots by 2012.

The ab initio cadets - all from the United Arab Emirates - do a foundation course in aviation sciences and English before going to BAE Systems Flight Training at Adelaide, Australia, to perform about 250h flying in singles and twins, followed by a jet conversion course. Back in Dubai they undertake a multicrew-co-operation course in Emirates' Airbus A310 simulator, although the airline has only Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s in its fleet. The carrier is also putting those trainees "who want to get on" through an MSc in aviation transport at the UK's City University in London. A few of its top management pilots are doing the same course.

Among its present 850 pilots, says Knowles, there are about 50 nationalities, and he considers multiculturalism a strength. Although Emirates' pay is not the highest in the world, Knowles stresses that the package for expatriate pilots is "attractive", with provision for schools, housing, medical care and no tax. "A lot goes back into the local economy," says Knowles.

Culture is a theme Knowles returns to, whether talking about national cultures, the airline's culture, or training culture. "There are no unions here," he says. "We have a culture that enables us to focus on standards and performance. We are developing new techniques - looking at performance rather than risks." Here he is referring to the use of flight data recorders for flight operational quality assurance. "To talk about risk depersonalises things. Talking about performance puts people at the centre. The object of the approach is continuous improvement rather than the tick-in-the-box approach prevalent in the industry."

Western culture

The airline is engaged on a study into setting up its own ab initio training school, and a part of its rationale is that almost all training provision is built around a Western culture. Although Knowles does not criticise this, he observes that for Middle Eastern students to travel to the USA for training is a major culture shock. The USA "is a really tough culture for them", he says, pointing out that he had decided against sending Emirates students - who used to train at the University of Western Michigan - to US flying training schools "well before 9/11". Australian culture is gentler and the climate is more what the cadets are used to in the UAE, but it is still fundamentally Western.

Emirates' school, if it goes ahead, will be open to students worldwide, but for any Middle Eastern trainee there would be no problem with cultural transition, and Western students would have the proximity of Dubai, one of the world's great centres of multiculturalism. But the venture would entail a purpose-built airfield and campus, close enough to take advantage of the city of Dubai's facilities but far enough from the international airport to avoid airspace problems. And, points out Knowles, "the whole thing has to be businesslike and make money."

Making money does not seem to be that easy for the training industry right now.

Source: Flight International