China and India rely heavily on North American flying schools - but do they get value for money?

With burgeoning airlines in China and India hiring every available pilot, and local instructors too few and inexperienced, North American flying schools are competing for every new student. Agents and recruiters acting for airlines and schools are busy signing training deals and funnelling future pilots across the Pacific.

Most training of Chinese students is arranged by airlines that pay the bills. Indian students usually pay their own way, but if they do not start with a letter of intent from an airline they are hired immediately on graduating. An accelerating flow of Chinese students has been training in the USA for several years, but the growth in the number of Indian students is recent, and tied to the country's air-transport liberalisation.

"That started a new market, new airlines, and we've been hanging on for dear life ever since," says Adam Penner, operations manager at Harv's Air, a flight school in Manitoba, Canada where half the 90 students are from India - a huge boost since the first enrolled in 1995.

Pan Am Flight training Acadamy 
© SimCom 
SimCom's ab initio programme in Arizona is attracting overseas cadets

Many factors influence where students train, from reputation to location. Industry leader the University of North Dakota, which previously trained students for several Chinese airlines, is rekindling old relationships, but nothing is signed yet. Coastal Pacific Aviation, meanwhile, finds the large Indian population of its Abbotsford, British Columbia base in Canada is attractive to students from the subcontinent, says director of training services Andrew Stanton.

China and India are not the only countries driving growth in training. By 2008 or 2009 instructors and maintenance technicians from Galvin Flying Service will be leaving Seattle for Vietnam to teach 20 pilots a year for the Boeing 777, and others for the ATR 72, in Ho Chi Minh City. "The outfit we're working with in conjunction with Vietnam Airlines is American Pacific University. They also see a need for pilots regionally," says flight school manager Nick Frisch.

At Delta Connection Academy in Sanford, Florida about 25% of students are Chinese, and president and chief executive Gary Beck says the airline subsidiary has trained almost 500 Chinese students since 1998, working directly with Chinese carriers. While partnerships are the norm with China, recruiting is what it takes in India, he says. "We see on the horizon the probability that we will be training for Indian airlines. They will probably adopt a similar programme to what the Chinese airlines have," he says.

"We have a 98% graduation of our Chinese students, and this is no relaxation of our standards." The students are hired on graduation because they have passed a CAAC-approved course alongside only other Chinese students, he says. "We're tough, and we have a reputation in China of being a hard school. But these Chinese students are bright. They pick the cream of the crop to become pilots."

Too demanding?

There is a disadvantage to this, Beck says. "They haven't broadened out their scope of prospective pilots in China. They are laser-focused on maths, science and engineer majors, thinking you can't be an airline pilot unless you have a degree in one of those sciences. And their physical is like an astronaut's physical, so they wash out a lot of their pilots with their medical."

Located at Deer Valley airport in Phoenix, Arizona and operating as Pan Am International Flight Academy, SimCom's career pilot training programme claims more Chinese students than any other US flight school, and is currently training pilots for six airlines. "We're in our fourth year now," says SimCom president and chief executive Wally David. "The need has tended to accelerate over the last three years." On completing their CAAC-approved training in the USA "students go back to China and do type-specific training in commercial aircraft", he says.

The arrangement that created Beijing PanAm International Aviation Academy in 2003 gave the company an early lead in training on Chinese soil, but the deal expired in 2005 and was not renewed. There are now no ties between the two. "We provided assistance in getting it started, but there have been significant challenges in training students in China, primarily because of a lack of aviation infrastructure," David says. "It's much more efficient to train students in the USA, and that includes the cost of transporting them here and housing them here, because it can simply be done in a much shorter period. That may change over time."

Miami-based Pan Am International Flight Academy (PAIFA), the commercial airline training business spun off from SimCom last year in a management buyout, has begun a US ab initio programme for Indian pilot provider High Flyers Aviation Services, with 32 students beginning training every six weeks. The five-month course includes flying training provided by Tamiami-based Dean International, followed by turbine and glass-cockpit transition and eventually type-rating training on PAIFA simulators.

PAIFA was approached by two corporations in India to set up schools, but executive vice-president Eric Freeman saw an opening to take over the Indian government's IGRAU academy.

PAIFA is one of the bidders to take over operation of the school. "They essentially built an ab initio-type campus specifically to feed Air India and Indian Airlines," Freeman says. "It's quite a facility, but they're having difficulty getting the number of students through the academy to feed the airlines."

The rapid growth in demand has its downside, and there is concern that foreign clients are not getting what they agree to, and that airlines do not always know how to shop for a school.

"The biggest problem we're faced with is there are many schools out there and some, unfortunately, will make false promises," says American Flyers admissions director Bob Cunningham. "They quote at bare minimums and very few people actually do it in bare minimums," he says.

Questionable practices

American Flyers' 11 locations currently train only a few students from India. "We had a hard time getting them to understand that the dollars aren't the best way to know if the training is good," says Cunningham. Delta's Beck also sees questionable practices, saying: "I think flight schools have to be careful what they advertise and what they can deliver."

Requests for training can be too big, or too quick for even established schools. One request by a US company to start a new school in China was too much for Western Michigan University. "The offer was 'would you send eight or 10 airplanes and leave them here?'," says Rick Maloney, dean of the university's college of aviation.

In November, the University of Central Missouri was asked to consider taking 300 Chinese students, says department of aviation acting chairman Adrian Bernagozzi. "Our current programme has 300 students," he says. "We would have to double the size of our fleet. We would have to train them three at a time. It was unrealistic. We decided we couldn't afford the investment."

Wen Tsui, the man who tried to broker that deal, is managing director of Honour Pro Investment. Finding schools for Chinese students is a small part of the company's business, but will grow, he says. "The only thing we know for sure is that it is very large, and it will be for the next 65 to 70 years."

Competition between schools is rife, meanwhile. Regional Airline Academy says some of the Indian students who were ready to attend its Arizona or Florida campuses have now been wooed away by other schools. "That happens all the time," says senior airline training instructor Ron Tucker.

The Indian students rarely go through the screening that Chinese students endure since they pay their own way. But, says Harv's Air's Penner: "It's incredible, many of them have positions before they're done. The airlines are constantly calling here. They're definitely hungry for more applicants."

Source: Flight International