Low-cost carriers in South-East Asia and the Pacific Rim are proliferating. But will the shortage of pilots hinder their expansion?

The surge in low-cost carrier (LCC) start-ups across South East Asia threatens to create a pilot shortage in the region that could impede growth for several years. Carriers in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are hiring pilots. They start with a preference for applicants that already hold relevant type ratings, and the applicant pool, consisting mainly of pilots based outside the region, has so far been sufficient. But as carriers in the area progress with plans to add more than 50 aircraft over the next year, the market is expected to tighten.

"There is going to be a disaster in the next three years," predicts Malaysian Flying Academy (MFA) general manager Capt M Khashav. "All the airlines in the South-East Asia region want 100-150 pilots in the next two to three years. Where are they going to get them from?" Liz Loveridge, managing consultant for New Zealand-based pilot recruitment agency Rishworth Aviation, says there is adequate supply at the moment "but it's getting tight, so it's getting more competitive".

Capt Roy Chua, chief pilot at Singapore start-up Valuair, confirms: "It's becoming more like a pilot market rather than an airline employer market these days." Valuair got a head start over two other Singapore-based start-ups, hiring 17 pilots before its May launch. But as Chua searches for more pilots to support a fleet expansion from two to four Airbus A320s by year-end, market conditions are changing. Singapore Airlines' new LCC affiliate, Tiger Airways, and Qantas's new Singapore-based LCC affiliate, notionally called Asian Value Based Airline (AVBA), are competing for the same pool of A320-rated pilots.

Says Chua: "We'll have to see how things develop. For a long time we wanted to start a low-cost airline in Singapore and suddenly now there's three airlines." Tiger chief pilot Capt Jim Duggan adds: "Everyone is chasing the same pool of recruits. We're having no problems finding pilots - we have hundreds and hundreds of applications. What is relatively scarce is experienced and A320-rated pilots." Tiger is looking for captains with 4,000h and either 1,000 pilot-in-command (PIC) hours in aircraft above 20,000kg (44,000lb), including 500 A320 hours, or 3,000 PIC hours and no A320 experience. First officers must have logged at least 1,500h and 700 PIC hours.

About 60% of pilots hired by Tiger have 500h of A320 time, while the others are being put through a type-rating course. Tiger also has temporarily leased - from Singapore Airlines - four Boeing 777 pilots with significant former A320 experience to help with the launch phase. Tiger has taken delivery of two A320s ahead of a mid- to late-September launch and plans to have a four-aircraft, 32-pilot operation by year-end. A further four aircraft are set to be delivered next year. Valuair found enough applicants with A320 ratings to fill its initial pilot group and now aims to staff its second group. The airline only needs one month to bring new people on line - the length of a licence conversion course that meets Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore regulations.

Pilot pay

"We are too small to be able to do commercial training, so we need pilots with a type rating," says Valuair's Chua. "We've been lucky perhaps in that we're already established and there are quite a few applications coming in." Valuair, unlike Tiger, is offering benefits on top of basic pay, including medical insurance, uniforms, food, training and reimbursement of licensing fees. Basic pay for captains is S$7,000 ($4,100) a month, plus S$80 a flying hour. First officers, who have all logged at least 4,000h, are paid S$4,000 a month, plus S$56 an hour. Valuair, which is considered an all-economy budget airline with some frills rather than a strict LCC, now has its pilots flying an average of 90h a month, which translates into a monthly salary of S$13,500 for captains and S$9,000 for first officers.

Tiger is offering slightly higher basic pay, ranging from S$14,000 to S$16,000 monthly for captains and S$9,000-11,000 for first officers. But there are no benefits provided and pilots must pay for their uniforms, bring their own food and pay back all training costs, including licence-conversion and type-rating courses if necessary, over a bonded period of three years. AVBA, which plans to take delivery of its first A320 at the end of October and add seven more over the next year, has not yet opened a web site for potential pilot applicants.

Start-ups in Thailand are hiring pilots with lower hours and often zero hours in type, according to Lovington. Airlines hiring in Thailand include Thai AirAsia, an affiliate of Malaysia's AirAsia and new Orient Thai LCC subsidiary One-Two-Go. Thai AirAsia will operate some of the 18 Boeing 737-300s AirAsia plans to add over the next year. One-Two-Go, which expanded its fleet from two to four Boeing 757-200s at the end of July, plans to add up to two more 757s and up to eight Boeing MD-82s. New Thai Airways LCC affiliate Nok Air launched in July with two 737-400s flown by pilots from Thai Airways. While Nok has no near-term plans to hire its own pilots, Thai is hiring to support expansion plans and make up for the loss of pilots to other carriers, especially higher-paying airlines in the Middle East. Thailand has lifted restrictions on overseas recruitment to meet surging demand from local operators, says Lovington. Filipino pilots already working abroad, mainly in the Middle East, are taking up many of the available jobs.

In Indonesia, Lion Airlines has been able to continue to rely on local candidates, but has brought in experienced instructor pilots from abroad to train recruits. Lion, which operates 19 MD-82s, plans to add several more as well as 737-400s.

In Malaysia, AirAsia has taken the unusual step for an LCC in introducing a cadet programme. The programme will help the carrier keep up with rapid growth and satisfy its preference for local staff. But it is also looking for captains from Malaysia and abroad with at least 4,000h, including 1,000 PIC hours in aircraft over 20,000kg.

The first group of AirAsia cadets are now in the middle of MFA's 66-week air transport pilot licence (ATPL) course and a second batch will begin this week. The cadets, who will go through a 737 type-rating course following graduation, must pay back the cost of training through a bank loan that AirAsia helps organise. The ATPL course costs 150,000 ringgit ($39,500) and involves 200h of flying, including 165h on single-engine trainers and 35h on twins.

School days

MFA's Khashav expects AirAsia to send the school 60-80 cadets annually. It has historically trained about 40 pilots annually for  flag carrier Malaysia Airlines and is in talks with airlines in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam about sending ab initio students. Currently, only 10-15% of MFA's students come from outside Malaysia. Khashav believes LCCs across the region will set up cadet programmes to make sure they have a steady stream of new hires. As a result, MFA is prepared to double its capacity from 140 to 280 pilots a year. "I can't see any training programmes being propagated anywhere," he says.

Others point out that LCCs historically have never used cadet programmes and Asia should be no different. "We wouldn't be interested in getting into the selection of ab initio pilots," says Tiger's Duggan.

Tiger has not yet hired any local pilots, but intends to follow the Ryanair model of hiring newly minted commercial pilots with only 200h. These pilots would be put through an A320 type-rating course, which they must pay for through bonded contracts or loans. Tiger aims eventually to open its own training organisation in Singapore, but Duggan says type training will likely be outsourced. "I'd love it if there are young Singapore pilots available," he says. "This is their home and they are much more likely to stay."


Source: Flight International