Airlines are the first to tell the world how fast they are changing to meet the demands of a progressively deregulated, competitive marketplace. One area, however, in which they are being left behind is in the provision of high quality pilots for the future - indeed, even for today. Flight International's Pilot Employment Survey confirms that airline pilot training sources and practices are changing rapidly, and that being an average commercial pilot (as opposed to one who makes it to the top) is not the glamorous, highly paid job it is made out to be, especially considering the personal investment that is required to join the pilot fraternity.

The concept of being a pilot, and the status it carries, is still attractive enough in most of the world's cultures (although not in all of them) to ensure that there are more people with commercial pilot's licences than there are jobs for them. That will probably always be so.

The fact that a person holds a licence, however, is not an assurance that they are necessarily good at the job. Any reputable haulage company hiring drivers does more than just check if applicants possess a driving licence before adding them to the payroll.

Unless airlines begin to calculate their future flightcrew needs now, and work out what their sources of well-trained pilots will be, many of them will forfeit the ability to choose. For some airlines, anyone who holds a commercial pilot's licence may well have to suffice. They might be lucky and find that the employee possesses the full range of talents a good airline pilot needs.

A pilot who stays the course to a full licence has a certain minimum ability, but even the International Civil Aviation Organisation is looking again at the specifications for training and licensing standards because the existing minima are seriously in question.

The biggest single change in airline pilot supplies today and for the near future is the collapse of the air forces as a major supplier. Not only is the world military resource shrinking, but it is holding on better to those pilots it trains. Meanwhile, commercial air transport is growing relentlessly in comparative size.

It is apocryphal that a military fighter pilot does not necessarily make a good airline pilot, but in fact most of them do. It is also forgotten that the military, as a provider of skilled personnel to the airlines, did not merely train their pilots; it also put them through a tough selection process before the training even began, so their basic suitability to the task, and their aptitude for eventual command, was as close to being assured as was possible.

All those tasks which the military has previously carried out will now have to be taken over by the airlines. A few carriers have been training some of their own pilots for a long time, but those who used to sponsor pilots fully are now under increasing competitive pressure to pass the cost of the training to the student, even if they carry out the selection themselves.

Selection is a skilled and painstaking task which the progressively leaner airlines will be increasingly unable to take on. The pattern for ab initio pilot selection in the future appears to be choice of recruits by specialists at flying training schools or pilot recruitment agencies, followed by an interview and a course in a school chosen by the employer The training would be paid for by the student, or part-sponsored by the airline on a repayment basis.

Of course not all will be chosen as ab initio recruits, so they will self-sponsor and then apply for work, not facing the selection process until after they have made the large investment required. Some will not be chosen. This is a chilling prospect, and allied to the fact that the average airline pilot is arguably becoming less well paid, while the job is less secure, and involves far more hours working away from home than it used to, the airlines ought to start asking now where they will find their pilots in the new millennium. Tomorrow's potential pilots are certainly going to ask whether the cost, in financial and lifestyle terms, is worth it.

Source: Flight International