Worry about future pilot and engineer supply for airlines has been around since the 1990s, but something has always happened to postpone the predicted shortage.
Industry experts today, however, look at the number of forward orders for new aircraft, predictions of world fleet expansion, and sustained growth in the Asia-Pacific region and cannot see a further postponement unless the world economy moves from sluggish growth into depression - and that is not, at present, being predicted.
The number of new pilots required to be trained in the next 20 years is 450,000 worldwide, according to the Professional Aviation Board of Certification (PABC). Simulation and training giant CAE estimates the requirement at 20,000 new pilots a year, which is roughly the same as PABC's prediction.
Meanwhile, Martin Eran-Tasker, technical director of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, presenting at the Flightglobal Safety in Aviation - Asia conference in Singapore in May, pointed out that the Asia-Pacific region alone had a need to train 184,000 fully trained pilots and 250,000 aircraft technicians in the next 20 years, with China's specific needs being, respectively, 72,000 and 110,000.
Cathay Pacific's director of flight operations has stressed the importance of performance-based navigation
Eran-Tasker says government figures show that the number of would-be pilots presenting themselves for training, and the number of licences being issued, are both going down because the appeal of piloting as a career is plummeting.
He ascribes this to industry instability, the high entry cost, unsocial working patterns, and the fact that piloting is now less well paid than some other professions.
PABC's Asia manager, Capt John Bent, is trying hard to spread the message that training is not only a numbers game. Bent, also among the speakers at the Flightglobal Safety in Aviation - Asia conference, insists that quality is also vital, but that this fact is not, at present, being taken seriously.
He says airlines are implementing safety management systems (SMS) - which represent a reactive system of risk management - but training - the proactive way of lowering risk and ensuring reliable operations - continues to be budgeted based on regulatory minimum standards. Many airlines have moved "beyond compliance" in other fields, but not in training. Bent says he struggles with the absence of logic in this approach to risk management.
Meanwhile, most airlines are not making practical plans for the provision of sufficient numbers of expert staff in the future, let alone for assuring the necessary quality, and of concern is that the third-party training industry does not have the capacity to produce the pilot and engineer numbers required. On the other hand, the accelerating worldwide consolidation in this highly fragmented industry might create a more resilient training sector, one with greater capacity for investment in future expansion.
The recent takeover by simulation and training giant CAE of the Oxford Aviation Academy (OAA) group of flight training organisations and type rating training organisations - itself a product of progressive consolidation over the last few years - is an example of this. CAE has been particularly strong in type and recurrent training and OAA in ab initio, so the two are complementary.
As an exercise in examining whether the fears of expert staff shortage are real or imaginary, Bent lists the milestones in the industry's pilot supply situation since 1997. He explains why, for the last 15 years, the airline industry has repeatedly been able to scoff at the pilot shortage warnings.
In 1997, the Air Transport Association warned of an impending pilot shortage. In 2001, following 9/11, air travel slumped and large number of experienced pilots were furloughed. The SARS epidemic and fuel crisis reversed recovery in 2003 and 2004, and later the pilot retirement age was increased to 65, extending the careers of the baby-boomer generation of pilots who were about to retire.
In 2007, US regional airlines started to run out of pilots, and flying training organisations to run out of instructors. In 2008, the global financial crisis led to "negative growth".
Now, a few years later, Bent's chronicle has started to show some underlying indicators that point the other way.
In 2011, air travel growth resumed and heavy forward orders were placed for all categories of aircrafts. And this year, growth continues and the arrival of non-negotiable age 65 retirements for the post-war baby-boomer generation has begun to make a difference.
Moreover, military-trained pilots and engineers continue to reduce in number as the air transport industry grows and the military sector shrinks.
At the Flightglobal conference, Bent joked that the airlines now would push for a pilots' retirement age of 70, to delay the day of reckoning - again. Maybe this is not so far from the truth. On the other hand, although it might eventually happen, right now none of the authorities - including the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) - has even begun to consider the possibility of extending further the operating life of commercial aviation pilots.
Opening the conference, the director general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, Yap On Heng, talked about aviation's rapid and continuing expansion in the region, explaining the three reasons for this. The first is the emergence of China and India as economic powers, the second is the continuing liberalisation of air services throughout the region, but the third - and underrated - influence is the low-cost-carrier factor, which is still developing rapidly.
commercial aviation gallery on flightglobal.com/airspace
Dragonair is a recent convert to evidence-based training
Heng explains: "Low-cost carriers emerged in Asia in the early 2000s to tap the growing appetite for travel, and opened up a brand new market for regional travel. They have now become a force in the Asian aviation industry. Take Singapore for instance: LCCs were non-existent there a decade ago, but since their emergence they have grown to contribute 46% of the passenger traffic between Singapore and ASEAN cities in 2011.
The rapid expansion of Asian low-cost carriers have a domino effect on the aviation system - with their higher demand for aircraft, their additional load on air navigation services, and their need for more flight crews and aircraft maintenance engineers. Throughout Asia, new airports are being built and existing ones expanded to cater to the LCC boom."
At the other end of the scale, Heng notes, the region is generating large numbers of high net-worth individuals, so business aviation is likely to expand exponentially. Business jets need two pilots and a team of mechanics, just like jumbo jets do.
Bent's concern, along with the looming human resources shortage, is training appropriateness and quality. Appropriateness because, as he points out, since 1982 it has been recognised that pilot training needed a radical update because the nature of the piloting job, the aviation environment and the aircraft themselves has changed significantly.
In 1982, ICAO set up a Pilot Licensing and Training Panel (PLTP) that sat until 1986, but failed to convince the ICAO Air Navigation Commission and the Council that change was necessary.
Since that rejection of change by ICAO in 1986, there has been a far greater revolution. There are significant changes in the flightdeck environment, aircraft technology, and air navigation, but still no training changes have been adopted by national regulators to reflect the new ways of working.
The changes in the job are massive: for instance, fly-by-wire and integrated avionics systems arrived with the Airbus A320 series in 1988, and were embraced by Boeing in its 777 series a few years later; avionics advances made flight engineers redundant even in the largest widebody airliners; satellite-based navigation is now the norm even if it still requires conventional back-up; and pilots have been expected to adopt performance-based navigation (PBN) without any basic preparation for it, despite the fact that modern air traffic management will increasingly rely upon precision navigation techniques to process traffic safely in busy airspace.
Indeed, Cathay Pacific's director of flight operations Capt Richard Hall has warned that the full and highly skilled use of PBN capability will be essential to enable Asia-Pacific air navigation service providers to cope safely and efficiently with the predicted explosive regional traffic growth. He talks of "narrowing corridors" as airspace becomes busier.
Bent refers to "national regulatory requirements lagging behind this fast-changing industry", to "legal lock-in to established practice", and a perception that change is a risk in its own right.
There is now much talk about this need for change, but nothing has actually been done. Bent quotes Bill Voss, head of the Flight Safety Foundation, as testifying to a US Senate sub-committee that pilot training "is dangerously outdated".
Voss warned the committee that rules and practices that favour quantity - like the accumulation of flight hours - over quality in terms of measurable piloting performance produced and maintained through comprehensive training, would not have a beneficial effect on airline safety standards.
Some - usually large - airlines choose to make recurrent training more relevant to their specific operational needs and experience by adopting an advanced qualification programme, also known as flight operations quality assurance.
But these carriers are in the minority and may always be. So the failure of national aviation authorities to update regulatory requirements condemns to an inherently higher risk of serious accidents all those who train according to outdated rules.
Despite its failure with the PLTP in 1984, ICAO has acted recently to draft more modern training standards.
It has created the multi-crew pilot licence (MPL), the first pilot licence in history to define all the competencies necessary to meet the performance and knowledge parameters that its holder must be able to demonstrate.
ICAO is also working on clearer guidance on flight simulation training devices and how, as their technical fidelity advances, they may be permitted to supplement or replace training in aircraft more widely than at present.And, in collaboration with the International Air Transport Association, ICAO is developing a training and qualification initiative.
Captain Dieter Harms owns the title − if any single pilot should be awarded it − of "the father of the MPL". At the Flightglobal conference he delivered a definition of pilot core competencies: "A group of related behaviours, based on job requirements, which describe how to operate modern multi-crew transport airplane safely, effectively and efficiently. They describe what proficient performance in all phases of flight operation looks like. They include the name of the competency, a description, and a list of behavioural indicators."
And why, according to Harms, should competency-based training succeed where what he calls "inventory-based training" has failed? This is his explanation: "It is based on the insight that inventory-based training and the repetition of past accident scenarios [are] insufficient to prepare pilots and crews to successfully handle the infinite number of unforeseeable situations. And that only the existence and the continuous application of a set of core competencies enable pilots and crews to operate safely, efficiently and effectively and manage the threats of modern civil aviation." The fact that threat and error management is a component of the MPL course from beginning to end also helps.
Meanwhile, the PABC is preparing globally standardised examination questions to test the knowledge base required by professional transport pilots in today's environment, and the ICATEE (International Committee for Aviation Training in Extended Envelopes) is working with the UK Royal Aeronautical Society on how to prepare pilots to manage flight at the edges of the normal flight envelope.
So all this work is being done, but still nothing is happening at the regulatory end or the airline frontline.
Bent explains: "Unharmonised national regulatory requirements are lagging behind this fast-changing industry; there is legal lock-in to established practice, and a perception that change equals risk."
If the world, or even individual states, decides to modernise the rules on type and recurrent training requirements, Bent says, the next problem will be instructor supply. There will be a need to retrain existing instructors, train new ones in large numbers, and retain them by making instructing a valid career choice, with adequate rewards.
Even now, there is a necessity to retrain instructors who are going to work with MPL students; the manner of teaching pilots through a defined competency-based curriculum toward a competency-based licence is different from the traditional test-based pass/fail system.
Emirates has adopted evidence-based recurrent training
Bent addresses how modern line pilots should be kept up to speed with their job. He is a fan of cutting-edge thinking among training planners and practitioners at the Royal Aeronautical Society, IATA, ICAO, and airlines like Emirates that have adopted evidence-based recurrent training.
This draws on evidence from flight data monitoring and other SMS inputs to identify the training exercises the crews manifestly need. Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, Air France, Qantas, Virgin Australia, Qatar Airways and Air Transat are recent converts to evidence-based training.
Bent maintains that the modern recurrent training need, above all else, is "training for the unexpected". Modern flying is routine and uneventful because of the unprecedented reliability of modern airframes, engines, avionics and flight management systems (FMS), even if there is a high workload in some flight phases.
Bent's theory is that "the startle factor" of unexpected events is often the initial cause of that modern killer phenomenon − loss of control.
"If the pilot was able to control the startle factor, it is likely that the natural stability of the aircraft would stop a divergence from controlled flight before a pilot could amplify it," he says.
But how is it possible to train for the unexpected? In fact, it's an issue of ensuring, through training, that the pilots maintain a confidence in their own judgement so they never losing sight of the primary task, which is to keep the aircraft within its flight envelope, while addressing whatever else has occurred.