Gulf keeps growing

Credit: Rex Features


The region’s three big global connectors are set to continue to lure expat pilots from around the world as their fleet sizes ramp up

by Murdo Morrison
Editor, Flight International

For years now, the Gulf has been the go-to region for ambitious pilots looking for a fast-track to the left-hand seat with a growing and profitable airline, flying international routes on new equipment, coupled with a comfortable benefits package and lifestyle. 

The region’s big three airlines – Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways – have had their pick of the world’s aviators, turning down as many applicants as they take on. This year, more than 1,000 pilots will join the three airlines alone.

Visit Dubai and you wonder what is not to like. The rapidly-expanding  regional economic hub of gleaming skyscrapers and opulent coastal villas has  something for everyone –  expat resident  or tourist alike – combining a safe environment with a lively entertainment,  retail and leisure scene. The downside is the cost and shortage of housing, but  Emirates says it mitigates this by offering company-provided accommodation or a  living allowance.

Abu Dhabi and Doha, the more sedate bases of Etihad and Qatar Airways  respectively – and both national capitals – may not have the 24/7 buzz of their  fun-loving neighbour, but they are each shaking off their backwater image with  investment in luxury hotels, entertainment and sporting venues, housing  developments and apartment blocks. Like Emirates, both airlines stress the  benefits of making a new home in the city as much as the job itself.

Emirates will recruit around 400 pilots next year – roughly the same as  2014 – as it takes delivery of 16 Airbus A380s and 13 Boeing 777s. Although some  A330s, A340s and older 777s will be retired and crews retrained for newer  types, the intake will see overall pilot numbers increase by a tenth. With a  low annual retirement rate – because its pilots tend to be younger – Emirates’  flightdeck attrition rate is just 2%, says divisional senior vice president of  flight operations Capt Alan Stealey.

High flyers

Despite a blip three years ago when it urgently needed experienced direct-entry captains, the Dubai airline sticks to its policy of only recruiting first officers. While this might mean experienced captains have to return to second-in-command for a while, Stealey insists it is the best way for Emirates to instill the airline’s values in all flightcrew, and ensure opportunities for rising in rank apply equally. “We prefer to promote internally and early,” he says.

This means that all first officers have a chance to apply for captains’ positions after a minium of three years with the carrier, although a four-and-half year wait is typical, says Stealey. Given that Emirates stresses the long-term nature of a career with the airline, this is not an unreasonable period, he suggests. It is also much  shorter than most legacy carriers, where stagnant fleet sizes and strict seniority rules mean co-pilots “might have to spend 20 years in the right-hand seat”.

We offer everything a young pilot would want, including flying the latest technology

Capt. Richard Hill

Chief operations officer, Etihad Airways

To apply for a job at Emirates, pilots need at least 4,000 flying hours in total in a commercial aircraft, or 2,500 on either an Airbus or Boeing. Those from a low-cost carrier background – who will fly around 800h a year – often get there fastest, and many applicants come from this sector, says Stealey. For a pilot flying several short-hop sectors a day, the ­attraction of intercontinental routes and really seeing the world can be compelling, he adds.

But Emirates also gets applications from much more seasoned pilots. “We had a guy in yesterday with 8,000h of experience,” he says. In fact, Stealey maintains he is seeing a change in the sort of pilots coming to Emirates. For a while crisis-hit US airlines were a happy hunting ground, but now, as the North American market has picked up, Europe’s ailing carriers are providing a stream of recruits, says Stealey. “If you work for an airline that is downsizing, we can offer stability,” he adds.

Emirates – which operates an all-widebody fleet – rarely mixes its Airbus and Boeing pilots, preferring to recruit its A380 crews, for example, from its own A330 cohort or external Airbus pilots. “The philosophies are different and we find it works better to retain pilots within the manufacturer,” says Stealey.

Similarly, for its growing 777 fleet, Emirates will tend to take on pilots experienced in flying Boeings. Type training is carried out at its own facility in Dubai or overseas.

Emirates is proud of its multinational flightdecks – with over 80 nationalities represented at last count – and puts a great emphasis on cultural understanding in its training. Having the right personality is as important as having the skills, says Stealey. About half the applicants to Emirates are rejected. “We’re not afraid to say to someone we won’t take you,” he says.

Every foreign pilot who applies to Emirates is encouraged to travel to Dubai for the interview, “and bring their family too, so they can see the city”, says Stealey. Although pilots are occasionally permitted to be based overseas, the vast majority are based in Dubai, where Stealey says the reward package – covering accommodation, children’s education, medical insurance, all in an income tax-free environment – is highly attractive.

In Abu Dhabi, Etihad has been even more prolific in its recruitment, taking on 650 first officers and direct-entry captains this year to crew the 24 airliners it will have taken delivery of in 2014, and 18 more that will join the fleet over the next 12 months – as well as backfilling internal promotions. The growth of the UAE flag-carrier, which was set up just over a decade ago, has been rapid, and its current spurt has meant it has had to relax its policy of only recruiting first officers.

Credit: Rex Features

Veteran commanders

“Our rate of expansion has been very fast and we have had to try to balance experience in the flight deck,” says chief operations officer Capt Richard Hill. “At times like this, type specific experience is not as critical as experience in global operations.”

Many of these veteran commanders have come from Asian carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific, which have been “downsizing expat captains”, particularly on their Boeing freighter fleets, says Hill.

Another imbalance that has to be tackled is the large number of cadet pilots coming through the ranks. State-owned Etihad has been emphatic about offering cockpit careers for young Emiratis, although it has also ­extended the net to international students. Some 70 former ab initio cadets – including 20 non-Emiratis – will graduate as second ­officers next year. However, they will take at least seven years before they reach the 5,000 flight hours that they will require to be considered for a command.

Direct-entry first officers must have a minimum of 1,500h cockpit experience and will typically take three-and-half to five years to reach the left-hand seat. Many recruits come from Airbus and Boeing narrowbody operators, but several have been piloting regional jets. “We are fairly pragmatic about that,” says Hill. “Our main requirement is that they have experience in a multicrew environment in a glass-cockpit type.”

A rich seam of recruits has been provided by Etihad’s partner airlines – those it has taken shareholdings in over recent years, including Air Berlin, Alitalia and Jet Airways. In fact, just over 100 of this year’s pilot intake have come from these three airlines, all of which are restructuring their fleets. Being able to access a pool of experienced pilots within the extended Etihad family was one of the reasons the airline made the acquisitions.

Next year’s recruitment numbers will be somewhat less than this year, although still significant at around 150, because pilots have already been taken on for aircraft due next year, says Hill. As with Emirates, Hill believes Etihad can offer a highly attractive career to expat pilots.

“The reason we’ve been successful is the opportunities we offer,” he says. “We offer everything a young pilot would want: a chance to fulfil a flying career on the latest technology and with a route network that covers the world.”