Regional analysis: Low-cost leads the way in Europe

Credit: Rex Features


No-frills carriers are among the biggest recruiters in the region, although full-service Virgin and BA are also seeking new talent

When it comes to airline pilot recruitment, “we’ve got a perfect storm brewing”, reckons Anthony Petteford, chief commercial officer of CTC Aviation – one of the largest European trainers of future flightdeck occupants.

An estimated 500,000 new pilots will be needed over the coming decade, he says, due to the requirement to replace 150,000 current personnel reaching retirement age, and to find a further 350,000 to cope with the industry’s global expansion.

These huge numbers are looming at a time when factors are conspiring to reduce the volume of new entrants to the industry.

“Since 9/11, the moment of epiphany where young people are inspired has been denied to them by not being allowed on to flightdecks. That’s reduced the number of aspiring pilots. The increase in costs to qualify as a pilot has also constrained the ability to enter the profession,” he says.

Additionally, the increasing automation of aircraft is, in the eyes of potential young recruits, downgrading the status and desirability of life behind the control yoke or beside the sidestick. The lack of time spent actually flying many modern airliners is reducing the status of pilots to that of an operative, not a professional, many believe.

“They gain the impression that the job is simply no longer what it once was,” says Petteford.

His concerns notwithstanding, airlines to which Flight International spoke say they are not currently experiencing a shortage of applicants, despite demand for pilots being strong.

“Virgin are saying your financial or social background shouldn’t be a limiting factor”

Anthony Petteford

Chief commercial officer, CTC Aviation

Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest recruiters are fast expanding low-cost carriers. ­Norwegian has recruited around 400 pilots for its short- and long-haul divisions this year, and expects to take another 250 in 2015. Wizz Air will take “up to 200” next year and ­Ryanair, in its next financial year that starts in April, will hire at least 600 new first officers undertaking type-rating training.

Different airlines have different preferences when it comes to bringing in new pilots. Wizz Air prefers to recruit experienced first officers, who typically get a captaincy in four to five years. “At Wizz Air we believe in promoting internal competence,” says chief pilot Capt David Morgan. “Our captain upgrade programme is much appreciated by our pilots, many of whom used it to step up their careers at Wizz; therefore we prefer to recruit experienced first officers.”

Norwegian says it recruits a mix of experienced captains and first officers, but also young pilots for type-rating courses. Accordingly, the Scandinavian airline provides a mix of training. It undertakes type-rating courses for the Boeing 737 and 787 and also handles an operators’ conversion course for experienced pilots.

High flyers

All Virgin Atlantic’s new pilots – apart from its new Future Flyers Programme trainees – join as first officers with a minimum of 3,000h, including 1,000h on commercial jets. Thomson Airways accepts only pilots with the appropriate type ratings.

EasyJet’s head of flight operations, Brian Tyrrell, says the last advertisement the ­London Luton-based carrier placed for ­experienced first officers attracted 3,500 responses. However, a Virgin ­Atlantic spokeswoman cautions: “With the decreasing number of ­airlines in the UK and reductions in armed forces pilot training, we do expect that in the long term [recruitment] will become more challenging.”

One common factor reported by airlines is that virtually all younger pilots accepted for training go on to pass the tests. This is mainly down to increasingly tough initial screening and aptitude tests that weed out marginal candidates early in the process.

One gateway to the flightdeck – airlines’ sponsored cadet schemes – was largely closed off in the recession that followed 9/11, as carriers tightened their belts.

In October, Virgin Atlantic announced it was resurrecting this entry method with its Future Flyers Programme (FFP), run in partnership with CTC Aviation.

The numbers involved in the FFP are small – just 12 in 2015, the first year of a five-year contract with CTC.

However, the programme not only offers the possibility of school leavers being granted entry into the profession, but also does so with the airline prepared to provide a financial guarantee for those with talent, but who are unable to afford the £109,000 ($171,000) it takes to go from ab initio training to the position of qualified first officer on Virgin’s Airbus A330 fleet.

Credit: Rex Features

“Virgin are saying your financial or social background shouldn’t be a limiting factor,” says CTC’s Petteford. “They’re enabling diversity.”

Additionally, the flying training runs in tandem with a newly created three-year degree course run by CTC and Middlesex ­University that will see successful candidates emerge with a BSc in ‘professional aviation pilot practice’.

The flight training syllabus consists of six months in ground school, followed by a core skills course on Diamond DA40s in Phoenix, Arizona. Students then return to the UK for simulator training covering instrument and multi-engine flying skills.

Around 3h of upset prevention recovery training is taught in an aerobatic aircraft, plus 4h in the simulator, then further sessions in the simulator add more detailed, Airbus-specific skills.

The final phase is taught at Virgin’s base near Gatwick and is more akin to traditional type-rating training. Trainees move on to the A330 and, ultimately, line operating experience alongside a line-training captain. A multi-crew pilot licence is the ultimate prize.

The Virgin Atlantic scheme, while welcome in providing berths for youngsters unable to raise the substantial funding required today to become a pilot, is relatively small compared with British Airways’ cadet scheme, the Future Pilot Programme.

The final phase is taught at Virgin’s base near Gatwick and is more akin to traditional type-rating training. Trainees move on to the A330 and, ultimately, line operating experience alongside a line-training captain. A multi-crew pilot licence is the ultimate prize.

Since the programme was reinstated in 2011 after a decade-long hiatus, around 220 trainees have been selected, with the first tranche of just over 90 due to start taking up their places on BA’s single-aisle Airbus fleet in the coming months.

“It’s pretty popular,” says Lindsay Craig, BA’s manager, pilot recruitment. “We normally run one application window per year and get 4,000-5,000 applicants each time.”

Initial training takes place at CTC Southampton or CAE Oxford Aviation Academy in the UK, or FTE Jerez, Spain, from where trainees graduate with a ‘frozen’ airline transport pilot’s licence. They are then introduced to multi-crew theory, learning skills such as sharing workloads.

Success rates, says Craig, are in the “high 90%” range, thanks to what he calls a “pretty gruelling” initial selection course. “We don’t want anyone to go into training who isn’t going to be successful.”

As with Virgin’s scheme, the rationale behind BA’s training course is to spread its recruitment net wider than has been the case in recent years.

Industry observers are concerned that graduates coming into the industry are increasingly being drawn from a narrow social stratum, whose parents have the funds to bankroll their offspring through training.

“The whole point of the FPP was to stimulate applications from people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get into an aircraft,” says Craig. “We don’t want to see talented people stuck on the outside.”

With this in mind, every successful applicant can apply to BBVA, BA’s Spanish partner bank, for funding for their training costs. “They apply for a loan that’s guaranteed by BA. That effectively removes a huge barrier,” says Craig. The trainees normally pay back the money over a 10-year period, after an initial two-year payment holiday.

BA operates two other recruiting streams. Although the flow of ex-military pilots in many Western countries has slowed to a relative trickle as armed forces have shrunk since the Cold War, they are still appreciated by airlines for their skills and discipline.

Military movers

Virgin Atlantic, for example, has taken 10 pilots from military heavy jets this year and funded type-ratings for them – as it is prepared to do if it finds particularly suitable civilian candidates. Around one-third of Virgin pilots are ex-military.

BA tries to smooth the transition from the military to civil sector by liaising with the British armed forces and arranging for pilots within two years of the end of their military careers to visit the airline. Both sides have a chance to evaluate whether they are right for each other.

Under this Managed Paths programme, military pilots can go through the BA selection process while still in uniform. Assuming they pass, BA will offer them a full civil type rating on the fleet they hope to join.

Finally, BA also offers direct entry for pilots transferring from other airlines. If a carrier is retrenching, “we can expect a spike in applications”, says Craig.

BA recently offered jobs to “quite a significant number” of pilots from UK-based Monarch Airlines, which is shrinking and moving from charter and long-haul services to a scheduled low-cost carrier niche.

With Monarch and others I think we’ll bring in about 50 experienced captains

Brian Tyrell

Head of flight operations, EasyJet

Finally, BA also offers direct entry for pilots transferring from other airlines. If a carrier is retrenching, “we can expect a spike in applications”, says Craig.

“In the past six months,” adds Craig, “we’ve had around 2,000 applications from qualified pilots wanting to join BA.

“If someone joins BA with the appropriate type rating, they go through around a month of learning BA procedures before getting on to the flightdeck. If they lack the relevant type rating, the process is two to three months.”

Acquiring pilots from a wide variety of backgrounds is deemed to be increasingly important by airlines.

EasyJet, for example, likes to bring in pilots experienced in other sectors, such as freight and turboprops. “They’re different,” says EasyJet’s Tyrrell. “Not better, but different. That’s useful. We find they have a different perspective, which helps the business.”

EasyJet is also prepared to help out financially, at least in some cases. If it selects pilots who have existing loans from banks or parents, “we bring those loans ‘in-house’, so we can guarantee them”. The carrier is also prepared to put in place funding arrangements for trainees who “show great potential”.

The airline is also prepared to recruit tactically when opportunities arise as other airlines retrench, adds Tyrrell: “With Monarch and others I think we’ll bring in about 50 experienced captains to the business.”

They will be needed: over the next four years EasyJet is looking to recruit 700 captains and 1,500 co-pilots – all to cope with expansion. “Our attrition is tiny. We’re a very secure airline. With our expansion rates, it’s about five years to get your command. Doing so aged 27 or 28 is really quite normal.”

Four to five years is mentioned by several airlines as the typical timeframe before a pilot moves into the left-hand seat, although ­Norwegian says an ­experienced first officer might only have to wait about 12 months: “Our requirement is minimum 4,000 hours with 2,000 hours on the Boeing 737.” At the other end of the spectrum, the typical time to command for young pilots at Virgin Atlantic is 10.5 years.

In recent years, the exponential growth of Middle Eastern carriers has seen them attracting thousands of pilots to the Gulf. However, none of the airlines contacted by Flight ­International say they are experiencing much, if any, drain of personnel to that region.

Peter Bellew, Ryanair’s director of flight operations, says the number departing for sunnier climes can be 20-30 in some years, but none in others: “We would have budgeted for a certain number of people to leave and we’re behind that budget.” In fact, he adds: “We’ve had people coming back from the Gulf.”

That latter phenomenon has also been reported by Virgin Atlantic, which says Middle Eastern carriers have actually been the airline’s largest single source of pilots joining it over the last two years.

Ramp up

Ryanair, which next year will start to accept significant numbers of its order for 185 Boeing 737-800s, is gearing up its training system to cope with this influx of equipment.

For pilots who require type rating on the Boeing, the carrier charges applicants €28,500 ($35,400), but it says this is seemingly not a deterrent, based on the number of job applications it receives. The length of its line training sessions “are double anyone else’s”, Bellew claims.

“Ryanair has come to be seen in the industry as the safe haven for pilots,” he says. “We never let people go. We have no problem in recruiting experienced captains.” He adds that recruits to Ryanair contain a significant number of people making career changes. “We have everything from dentists to artists to post-graduate mathematicians [and] plumbers… even priests.”

As Ryanair’s fleet ramps up it anticipates internally promoting some 220 captains and hiring another 100 externally.

Not all airlines are finding it so easy to recruit, however. Russia has just passed legislation allowing foreign pilots to fly for Aeroflot. Its first non-Russian captain, Klaus Rohlfs, a German citizen, made his maiden command flight for Aeroflot in late September.

Russia’s flag carrier says it sees recruitment of foreign pilots as “an essential transitional measure to help reduce Russia’s current deficit of flight personnel, which will require concerted long-term efforts”. It says it received 800 foreign applications – more than 10 for every vacancy – with most candidates coming from nations such as Spain and Italy, where airlines have been retrenching.