• News
  • On the rebound

On the rebound

By Mark Bursa in London

The first few years of the 21st century were tough for the aerospace industry. The events of 9/11, plus other crises such as the SARS virus in Asia, depressed the market and caused wholesale cutbacks. But the industry has bounced back rapidly – so much so, that it now looks like 9/11 was an excuse for many companies to make overdue streamlining to their operations. And 9/11 has resulted in an increased focus on defence and security, creating opportunities in high-tech areas of aerospace.

Meanwhile, the airline business has resumed the growth evident before the attacks. Air travel is booming, and this is creating demand for aircrew and engineering staff to support growing fleets. Can anything prick this bubble of optimism? It seems there is a positive consensus from many in the industry.

The trainer


Graham Austin, Chief Executive of UK Pilot Training School Cabair
"Low-cost airlines are still growing.  We didn't imagine there'd be such an opportunity"

Pilot training was hit hard by the events of 11 September 2001 – but now it has bounced back in no uncertain terms, believes Graham Austin, chief executive of UK pilot training school Cabair.

“This year has been one of the best opportunities for pilots for some time,” he says. “There had been a gradual increase in recruitment since 9/11, but now I believe we’re in a new dimension.” The demand for aircrew has bounced back because of a “potent mix of factors”, Austin believes – and now pilots are in short supply.

“The low-cost airlines are still growing, but more significantly the economies in the Middle East, India and China are growing at such a rate. We didn’t imagine there’d be such an opportunity,” he says. As a result, Cranfield-based Cabair is increasingly finding jobs for pilots at airlines such as Kuwait Airlines and Royal Brunei.

But one thing has changed since 9/11 – airlines are no longer prepared to pay for pilot training. The message is clear for young pilots – you will have to find the money to fund your own training, but providing you put the work in, there are plenty of jobs out there. “We’re not seeing added interest in airlines spending money on training,” Austin says.

Austin finds that the opportunities for pilots are well-paid, too. Low-cost airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair may have sliced costs out of many areas of their business, but they have not scrimped on aircrew salaries – so much so that smaller turboprop operators have a hard job hanging on to pilots when the low-cost carriers come calling for jet captains and first officers.

The downside for pilots joining the low-cost carriers is they will have to work their maximum 900 flying hours a year, thanks to sophisticated computerised rostering systems that the airlines use to sweat their assets to the maximum.

While the bar is still set high with regard to training in developed markets, Austin fears there might be a slackening of standards in emerging markets as airlines scramble to find enough pilots. “They could copy the low-cost model, but without a firm grip on quality,” he says. Austin sees the aircrew jobs market remaining strong, so long as another major disaster does not hit the airline business. “Another 9/11 is the spectre on the horizon. That could kill off growth again,” he says.

The labour provider

With more than 800 engineers working on contract in the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) sector, Resource Group commercial director Bob Keane is well placed to gauge the health of the engineering sector. “At the moment, business is really booming – we’re doubling our business year-on-year,” he says. “It’s staggering to think of what’s happened since 2001.”

However, despite his bullish point of view, Keane can see problems on the horizon. “The business had been in decline for quite a few years leading up to 2001, and 9/11 was an excuse for airlines to look at their organisations to see where costs could be cut.” The rise of the low-cost carriers and their leaner business model has also accelerated moves to outsource MRO operations, although that can bring new problems.

Specifically, Keane sees a growing skills shortage – a result of cutbacks in training over the past few years. The organised training programmes that used to provide a steady supply of experienced and well-trained engineers have gone. Now military headcounts are down and the focus on security means engineers are being retained. Meanwhile, many graduate and apprentice programmes run by original equipment manufacturers and airlines have fallen victim to cost-cutting programmes. “Training was seen as a luxury item – the responsibility for providing trained people fell to the colleges. It’s a demographic time bomb.”

So severe is the situation that Resource Group has started its own apprentice scheme and the first intake of 12 apprentices will complete their training in July. They should not find trouble getting jobs because, as well as the burgeoning MRO sector, large manufacturing programmes such as the Airbus A380 are equally demanding on resources. “We see that side of the business growing by 50-60% in the next six months,” Keane says.

Increasingly, Keane is finding European jobs for engineers from other parts of the world. He is looking for “anyone who can legally work in Europe and has the right skills, aptitude and attitude. We have to think globally now – we can’t just recruit from the UK. We’ll travel to all parts of the globe to identify the right skills.” For the future, the aerospace industry needs to make itself more appealing as a career at schools level – children as young as 10 should be made aware of the opportunities the industry provides, he believes.

Keane would like to see more assistance from the UK government in helping specialist organisations such as Resource Group set up technical training programmes. “We want at least a level playing field with academic colleges. Academia is not training people for the skills the customer wants.”

The student pilot


Rod Adds 
Student pilot at IK flight training Cabair

"If youu get good grades you tend to get snapped up. I'm hoping to be recommended" 


Rob Adds is paying to become a pilot and he is confident the investment and risk will be worthwhile. Thirteen months in to his course at Cabair’s Cranfield training school in central England, he has just started the multi-engine element of the course. “The job opportunities definitely seem to be improving,” he says. “There definitely seems to be an upward trend.” Adds reckons he is about six weeks away from starting to apply for jobs, but he is confident of finding work, as long as he gets a good first-time pass on his instrument rating.

“The market is very competitive, and you do hear stories about some pilots being unemployed for years, but if you get good grades you tend to get snapped up. I’m hoping to be recommended by Cabair to one of the airlines they have strong links with – British Airways or Flybe. And I’ll be getting my CV off to other airlines too.”

Adds is hoping for a first officer’s job on turboprops as a first job, which should net him around £20,000-25,000 ($37,000-46,000) a year. If all goes according to plan it should take six to seven years to rise through the ranks to jet captain. He is also looking at the business jet sector – another growing area. “I’m reasonably upbeat about getting a job,” he says.

If he can not get a job straight away, there is a Plan B. “If I’m still unemployed after six months I’ll take a flight instructor’s course and try and build some hours and practise teaching.” Adds has wanted to fly since he was a schoolboy, and joined the Manchester and Salford University Air Squadron to get some basic training when he was a student. When some of his squadron colleagues got jobs at airlines, Adds decided to follow them, taking an office job to earn the cash to fund his training.

“I’m just happy to be flying. If someone says ‘Fly my Cessna and I’ll pay for your flight instructor course’, that’ll be fine by me,” he says.

The headhunter



Bod Keane, Commercial Director, Resource Group

"Business is booming.  It's staggering to think of what's happened since 2001"

Recruitment consultancy CBSbutler specialises in finding technical and engineering personnel for a wide range of aerospace companies, ranging from MRO operations to manufacturers and suppliers. But while the market is booming, it is going through several shifts in emphasis, believes managing director Dave Leyshon. Finding the right candidate for the job is not as easy at it seems. In the MRO area, there has been a significant recovery post-9/11. But the market is changing. “Cost is a big challenge,” says Leyshon. “A lot of bread-and-butter work has been shipped off to low-cost regions in eastern Europe and the Far East – sending work away from Europe.”

So while there are plenty of job opportunities for MRO engineers, they are not necessarily conveniently located. Leyshon believes that is not a problem, as Europe offers opportunities elsewhere. “We’re seeing significant demand all round. We’re now placing people who previously worked in MRO into the manufacturing side, into large projects like the Airbus A380. All the aircraft manufacturers are expanding their ranges and there is significant demand for engineers – the skill sets are common to MRO and manufacturing.”

The manufacturing sector is going to continue to provide plenty of employment opportunities in the future, thanks to a number of driving forces – emissions regulations, cost and weight reductions and the need for all-new aircraft ranges, with Airbus and Boeing both needing to replace their short-range single-aisle jet ranges in the near- to-mid-term.

These aircraft will include plenty of new and unfamiliar technologies, generating a need within the aerospace sector for different skill sets, such as computer engineers. CBSbutler is placing increasing numbers of people from non-aerospace backgrounds, such as software engineers from the computer industry. These skills are especially in demand in the defence sector, where demand for technologists is “insatiable”, Leyshon says.

He says there is evidence of a return to formal graduate recruitment programmes. Airlines are again looking to recruit management graduate trainees, he says, and CBSbutler has just completed a programme for MBDA, the European missiles company owned by BAE Systems, EADS and Finmeccanica, that involved recruiting more than 100 graduate engineers.

Also for MBDA, CBSbutler is to headhunt 50 experienced managers to help run programmes to strict cost structures for demanding customers such as the UK Ministry of Defence. “They recognise the need to strengthen their capability to manage large programmes,” Leyshon says.

The low-cost carrier

Repositioning itself as a low-fares airline in 2002 has proved a successful decision for regional carrier Flybe, based at Exeter, south-west England. The airline has expanded rapidly, with a fleet of 44 Bombardier Q400 twin turboprops on order – 25 have so far been delivered – and a dozen or so BAe 146s. These jets are due to be replaced from this August by Embraer 195 twinjets.

With this expansion has come the need to recruit aircrew, but there seems to be no shortage of suitable candidates, believes Capt Ian Cheese, general manager, turboprop. “We are planning to recruit around 130 pilots a year to fuel our expansion needs, and there continues to be a large number of low-hour pilots to select from.”

Cheese says Flybe has always had a lot of interest from low-hour pilots in joining the airline. “An online application form attracted 1,300 applicants in eight weeks.” All pilots joining the carrier start on the turboprop fleet, flying Q400s. However, Cheese says it is relatively easy to step up to jets. “The Q400 performs in many respects like a jet of a similar size.”

Flybe has also become one of the first airlines to restart sponsored pilot training. “We currently run a partial sponsorship scheme with Cabair and a mentor airline pilot scheme with Flight Training Europe,” says Cheese. With the Cabair scheme, Flybe funds £20,000 of the £55,000 course costs. Six students a year are sponsored this way and in the first two years all have been taken on by Flybe. The mentored pilots receive about £7,000, and some extra training is paid for by Flybe once they have completed the course.

Such programmes give the airline better control, Cheese believes. “These schemes ensure that we achieve quality control from a very early stage as we are part of the selection process from the outset.” In addition, non-sponsored students are also being recruited directly after finishing their courses. “We draw both integrated and ‘one stop’ modular students from five UK flight training organisations on recommendation,” says Cheese, who is also prepared to look further afield and hire non-UK pilots. “We hire pilots with a JAA licence and the right to live and work in the UK.”

One problem for carriers with large turbo­prop fleets is retaining aircrew. Given the thirst for pilots among large carriers and rival jet-based low-fares airlines, it is inevitable that some of Flybe’s pilots are lured elsewhere. Cheese is philosophical: “I would not use the term ‘poaching’. Pilots aspire to different things and there will always be a group that wish to fly different aeroplanes, work closer to home or overseas, or fly in a different environment. That has always been the way in aviation.”

Cheese says Flybe can offer a fast track to a captain’s job. “A commander’s salary here will exceed a first officer’s pay on a 757,” he says. Some pilots have progressed within around three years. “We have some young captains, including one 24-year-old who wasn’t old enough to hire a car.”

The long-haul airline

The current spike in demand for air travel has seen passenger traffic in the first four months of 2006 running 7% up on last year, while airliner manufacturers are reporting record deliveries. Among the biggest winners from this market boom are the large Middle Eastern carriers, with more than half the widebodied aircraft to be delivered over the next 16 years estimated as going to airlines in the region.

Rick Helliwell, vice-president of recruitment for one of the fastest-growing airlines in the region, Emirates, has a job on his hands managing the company’s need for staff. He is looking to recruit 300 aircrew this year alone, mainly to service growth; Emirates is adding 14 widebodied jets to its fleet this year.

And as Emirates’ policy is only to recruit experienced aircrew, he has to rely on the reputation of the airline, plus the appeal of the Dubai lifestyle, to get the best candidates. “We get a steady flow of applications – pilots can register their interest in working for Emirates online. But a lot of applicants don’t have sufficient experience. We look for 4,000h, including 2,000h on multi-engine jets.”

Applicants undergo a thorough interview process, including flight simulators and psychometric testing. Only about half of those interviewed make the grade, says Helliwell, but as those hired already have plenty of hours, the route from first officer to captain is quick – three to four years.

Whereas Emirates was able to hang on to its aircrew in the immediate post-9/11 period, Helliwell has noticed an increased turnover in aircrew recently as demand has picked up in other regions. “China needs thousands of pilots over the next few years, and there could be a pilot shortage soon in the USA,” he says. “It’s getting more challenging to attract the right people.” Emirates casts its net far afield when it hires pilots, including as far away as South America and Australasia – Helliwell himself is a New Zealander.

Emirates’ thirst for new recruits is not just confined to aircrew. The airline has opted not to outsource MRO, and is building a massive new maintenance hangar in Dubai to service its A380 fleet. “We’re also hiring engineers and mechanics from all over the world,” says Helliwell. “We need to cope with the growing numbers of aircraft, plus the extra areas of specialisation on the aircraft – for example in-flight entertainment specialists.”

Emirates Group has become a diverse organisation, managing all ground handling at Dubai airport in addition to its large air cargo and IT divisions. “We’re recruiting 4,000-5,000 people across the whole organisation this year.” Many are cabin crew, with Emirates hiring between 60 and 80 new cabin staff each week. “We need more than 10,000 new cabin staff in the next five years,” says Helliwell.

Not even “another 9/11” will dent the growth projections, he believes. “You can’t stop evolution, only dent it. The trends for the global economy and global mobility are rising – so the future looks bright.”


If you're looking for a job in the aviation industry, please see our aviation job section or visit our partner

Related Content