Perceptions of the job of the airline pilot are changing and not in a way which is going to be good for the industry. For some cultures, notably in the Far East and Middle East, it has never been seen as glamorous or prestigious to be an airline pilot. But now, it seems, that same perception of the job and its associated lifestyle is spreading to those Western cultures in which airline pilots have traditionally been respected for their expertise and envied for their globetrotting, well-paid, career.

This may not be surprising. Anybody can globetrot now without being rich. The efficient, modern airlines that have enabled people on ordinary incomes to travel far and frequently are piloted by people whose lifestyle is vastly different from that of their forbears. Perhaps pilots have, until now, been accorded undue privileges which should be consigned to the history books, along with the days of protectionism and the state airline monopolies which have enabled flightcrew to live in an unreal world.

The pendulum looks as if it might be swinging into the opposite realm of unreality, however: a place in which all the disadvantages of an airline pilot's life are being thrown into sharp relief against the backdrop of a world in which prosperity for talented young people is available from a range of other careers which are seen as equally - if not more - prestigious.

Stripping away whatever mystique and glamour may still be seen to attach to the airline pilot's job, what remains? The commercial pilot's licence is a qualification which requires hard work, dedication and a crippling financial investment for most would-be pilots, with no guarantee of a job at the end of it.

Once employment has been won, the pay would be quite good if it were not for the training loans that have to be repaid. Work schedules are irregular, unpredictable, often unsocial, and unlikely to harmonise with those of a partner, or with the needs of a family. Finally, unlike those in any other profession, pilots have to submit their knowledge and skills to an exhaustive test every six months of their working life and to a medical check every year, either one of which could terminate their career.

The young, would-be pilots of today could be expected to look askance at such a prospect. In fact, all the signs are that this is precisely what they are doing. Airlines, faced with the reality of a shrinking supply of former military pilots, are now confronting increasing scepticism and indifference from those who, a generation ago, would have dreamed about nothing else but a flying career from early schooldays.

Now airlines are finding that the numbers applying for jobs is as high as ever, but that the quality has gone down. The kind of young people applying for pilot careers has changed, they say.

The theories as to what is happening are many and varied. Some write the whole phenomenon off as just a repeat of the early 1980s boom in pilot demand, adding as an afterthought that a repeat of the early 1990s slump which delayed a pilot shortage does not look as if it is about to be repeated - in the West, at least.

Others suggest that B and C salary scales within an airline destroy morale and deter the more talented and discriminating young career seeker. Yet others say that the entry cost and subsequent "pay-for-training" schemes just do not stack up against what professionals can encounter in other careers.

There will always be a certain number of young people who will pay whatever price, in financial and personal terms, it takes to win and to keep a flying career. The problem for the airlines is that their own needs are growing ever larger as the prestige and perception of the airline pilot's job declines in society at large.

Being an airline pilot in modern airlines and state-of-the-art aircraft remains demanding and, with a good employer, highly rewarding. But, to get the talented young people they want in the cockpit, airlines are going to have to do something they never had to do before: market the job to young people.

Then, having selected the best, they will have at least to share the costs of initial training with their chosen employees.

Source: Flight International