South-East Asian instruction centres are gearing up for expansion as the region's airlines reveal surprisingly ambitious growth plans. By David Fullbrook / Bangkok, Manila & Jakarta

Despite the economic aftermath of the 11 September attacks, many Pacific Rim airlines still plan to expand substantially, if not double, their fleets over the next decade. As a result, industry forecasters expect the region's pilot shortage to worsen in the long term, even though pilots are being furloughed worldwide as the recession takes hold.

But growing demand for pilots is unlikely to send hopefuls flocking to training schools. In the UK, for example, commercial pilots licence (CPL) training alone costs around £50,000 ($71,000) and takes at least a year. The addition of living expenses easily brings the total to £65,000.

One option often overlooked is to train at one of South-East Asia's well-established pilot-training schools, which adhere to an International Civil Aviation Organisation-based syllabus, and which generally recruit through long-standing arrangements with local airlines.

As a rule, the schools take foreign students on an ad hoc basis through bilateral government programmes. Study and living costs tend to be cheaper at these training centres, and they are undergoing something of a renaissance as they move on to a commercial footing and wake up to opportunities afforded by liberalisation and the airlines' growing appetite for pilots.

Since 11 September security has been more of a concern than ever and one the schools take seriously. Philippine Airlines Aviation School (PAAS), for example, is required to submit documents to the Philippine government so that background checks can be conducted on local and foreign students. Applicants take psychological tests to weed out suspect would-be students, and the police Aviation Security Group also closely monitors the school.

Indonesia's Civil Aviation Institute (ICAI) relies on small classes and instructors' close relationships with students to eradicate the undesirable, but Thailand's Civil Aviation Training Centre (CATC), which has always required extensive background checks on Thai students by either the government or local commercial sponsors, has taken a more drastic step.

Background checks

It has temporarily banned foreign students while it works on practical methods to check their backgrounds. Once the Thai government is satisfied with the proposals, CATC will be able to resume its ambitious plans to attract more foreign students with promises of lower training costs. The centre's new aviation security course is also being revised following September's attacks.

In a global market, training in developing regions where air transport is growing rapidly will endow prospective pilots with useful cultural skills and give them an advantage when applying for work at airlines which particularly welcome foreign pilots, such as Cathay Pacific or Singapore Airlines. Other carriers will have little choice but to follow their lead.

CATC, established for over 40 years, plans to expand the scope and capacity of its pilot training over the next few years to cope with growing demand, and ICAI and PAAS also have plans, though less advanced, to do the same.

CATC president Charach Pansuwan is sure the school will easily find students as demand builds. "Aviation is growing fast in China. They will need a lot of new pilots," he says, noting that China's schools cannot produce the 1,200 pilots a year its rapidly expanding airlines need. CATC is revising its training, and plans to offer air transport pilot licences (ATPL) soon.

Thai Airways International's simulators may be drawn into that and other courses. "The training has been recently revised, bringing it up to date and adding some elements of FAA [US Federal Aviation Administration] training to give it more scope," says Pongnares Puto, a former Royal Thai Air Force fighter pilot who conducts jet familiarisation training for CPL graduates using a Raytheon Beechjet 400A. This training, which qualifies new pilots more quickly, is conducted principally for Thai, but is attracting interest from EgyptAir and Lufthansa.

CATC is preparing to receive more than the 60 students it currently caters for annually, says Charach. "We plan to have three classes per year, 30 students per class. The problem is we have too many types of aircraft. So we are now holding a tender process for 12 new training aircraft on a six- or seven-year lease, with an option to buy," he adds. In January CATC will pick a new single-engine trainer to replace a range of old aircraft and reduce the fleet's diversity to four types from 10. Charach says this will increase training consistency and reduce aircraft downtime.

ICAI has seen some aircraft in South-East Asia's largest training fleet grounded by a lack of spares. For ICAI a lack of cash is the problem. However, it still provides extensive training for pilots, engineers and controllers for expanding airline industries in Indonesia and elsewhere.

Director Nursusanto is confident that ICAI, with strong government backing, can draw more foreign students and increase revenue now that Indonesia is getting back on its feet. A small Japanese group will arrive in October to train for private pilot's licences (PPL), and ICAI hopes they will move on to CPL training. Individuals are welcomed, but they may have to wait for a group to build up before starting training, says Nursusanto.

Charach is determined to build CATC's role in the region for training all aviation professionals, not just pilots. His thinking chimes with that of the government, which aims to make Thailand a regional aviation centre. New classrooms are being built at CATC's flight training centre at Hua Hin airport, a few hours south of Bangkok. Plans are also afoot to expand aprons, hangars and maintenance facilities.

Compulsory degrees

Student pilots are being encouraged to take the aviation management courses and degrees CATC offers in co-operation with Suranaree Technology University and France's Ecole Nationale de L'Aviation Civile, to broaden their understanding of the air transport industry. A degree course may even be made a compulsory part of training, says Puto.

CATC charges $45,000-50,000 for a CPL, but this is being revised, and may fall substantially as it is based on the exchange rate before the baht nose-dived in 1997. An idea of where CATC may peg its prices is given by ICAI, which charges $28,000-30,000, and PAAS where students pay around $25,000.

But CATC, ICAI and PAAS are competing on more than price with schools worldwide. Says Puto: "If you look West the average cost is around $50,000, but it doesn't include accommodation and food. CATC's price does. Plus the cost of living is much cheaper." It is a similar story in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Neither ICAI nor PAAS currently have foreign students. But CATC does, and like the others, is keen to attract more. Belgian cadet pilot Sam Dezeure thinks CATC's training system beats that of other schools. "Personally I prefer the system here where they have ground- and flight-school together. You can immediately test out the theory, whereas in Europe you would have to wait a year," he says.

ICAI and PAAS provide flight training after students have finished ground school. Dezeure studied ATPL theory in Belgium, where he thinks the training is overrated compared with CATC. "They could really attract a lot of foreign students. It's the ICAO syllabus, it's affordable, and the aircraft are up to date," says Dezeure. "There are plenty of airports, cross-country flying is good and there are also international airports available."

Although there are few female cadets, the schools are keen to recruit more. ICAI even has two female instructors, while CATC is training two women for Bangkok Airways, including Pairum Tatasingha, 26, a former high-school maths teacher, who hopes to pilot Boeing 717s. It is likely many more women will follow Pairum, as the pilot shortage forces airlines to seek to recruit females in ever greater numbers.

Perhaps Dezeure best sums up why would-be pilots should consider training in South-East Asia: "If you know you're going to live in the USA, study there. But for students who don't mind moving abroad, it's a great place to be." n

Source: Flight International