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Sat 21 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

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A flying start

A number of aviation training institutes have cropped up to cater for the industry’s manpower shortage. But will the economic downturn leave new students hanging in the air?

A number of aviation training institutes have cropped up to cater for the industry’s manpower shortage. But will the economic downturn leave new students hanging in the air?

Not many of us can deny that we have been, albeit momentarily, tempted into an aviation career. In today’s competitive world, it appears that the appeal for flying in the skies has lost some of its charm, with young people increasingly choosing other more conventional career paths.

For the fast-growing global aviation world, however, these choices have meant that the industry has been faced with an increasing manpower challenge. And as passenger numbers continue to rise, so too will the demand for skilled aviation personnel to supply the airlines. With the greatest growth in passengers occurring in the Middle East, the region in particular is facing a potential crisis on its hands.

Standardising training has and continues to be the biggest issue in aviation training. - Matthew Flaherty

The only real solution to the Middle East’s aviation manpower shortage is a two-pronged strategy. On the first hand, more local young people need to be encouraged into an aviation career, and secondly, the available training facilities must be up to the standards needed to operate in today’s competitive industry. Fortunately for the region, improvements in the latter have already been getting a headstart.

Earlier this year, for example, Emirates Aviation College announced an expansion of its MBA programme in Aviation Management due to its popularity and success.

To be launched later in the year, students will have the flexibility to study a diverse range of professional vocational and academic programmes in locations including Dubai, Singapore and the UK.

“One of the biggest issues for the year is meeting the challenge of supplying the aviation industry with the sheer numbers of specialised manpower it needs in order to flourish and expand over the coming year,” emphasises Mohammed Yousuf Al Budoor, senior vice president, Academic Wing, Emirates Aviation College (Aerospace & Academic Studies).

As part of the role in fulfilling this need, the college provides qualifications for a impressive range of aviation careers, from air traffic controllers and aircraft engineers to flight dispatchers.

“It is the duty of aviation-specialised institutions to inform young people planning their future career that there is a high demand for aviation professionals across the world,” maintains Al Budoor.

Emirates Aviation College does, of course, also offer students with an added attraction to joining its ranks – that of the infamous Emirates nametag. “Emirates has changed the concept of flying and is recognised for its innovation in aviation,” Al Budoor points out. “Our relationship has enabled enhanced training opportunities for students not normally available to those offered by independent training institutes.”

However, the numbers of top-rate independent aviation training institutes in the region has been flourishing and many, like the Jordan-based Ayla Aviation Academy, have also been keen to set up close working relationships with particular airlines.

Marwan Atalla, CEO of Ayla Aviation Academy accepts this influx of aviation training institutes into the region with a positive viewpoint. “This is becoming an increasingly competitive field, but this raises the quality bar, and ultimately is better for the consumer due to competition,” he points out.

Based at King Hussein International airport in Aqaba, Ayla Aviation boasts approval from both Royal Jordanian Airlines and Gulf Air and provides aspiring pilots with training using ‘using state-of-the-art aircraft, simulators and training techniques’.

“While cadets are amidst their training they also receive extra skills that will help in their future careers in aviation, such as teambuilding, communication, social responsibility and leadership skills,” says Atalla. The academy has already graduated over 60 cadets and has many more waiting eagerly in the wings to receive their aviation qualifications.

With the demand for aviation professionals at an all time high, some may criticise training institutes such as Ayla as simply churning out as many graduates as possible.

However, Atalla is quick to argue against this scepticism. “Ayla has a limit on our student intake. We have a comprehensive selection testing process, and stay innovative and progressive in our training,” he states. “We stick to our basic principle of providing quality over quantity.” However, if ever there were two hot topics in the aviation industry at the moment, it is manpower demand versus supply, and safety.

With so many aviation training institutes promising their students a high-flying aviation career in the not too distant future, the question can crop up whether safety is being compromised.

“Flight schools can produce low time pilots, but airlines need and generally require high time pilots for good reason and those pilots will be more and more difficult to find/hire/retain,” points out Bill McKnight, associate director at global management consultants, AT Kearney. “The industry recognises the problem and has initiated programmes to deal with the safety issue, but it remains a challenge.”

To prevent this scenario, international guidelines and standards for aviation training have long been set up by bodies such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and aviation training providers in the region are further monitored and assessed by local governmental authorities.

“Standardising training has and will continue to be one of the biggest issues in aviation training,” agrees Matthew Flaherty, head of marketing and admissions at another regional aviation institute, Dubai Aerospace Enterprise Flight Academy (DAEFA). “There has always been a wide spectrum of ‘quality and content’ in the sector and this needs to be resolved.”In fact DAEFA itself may well come under fire for its enviable reputation of being able to turn around a pilot in just over a year. “What this means is that a cadet can come to DAE Flight Academy with little or no flight experience and in just 12-14 months, have all the credentials, certifications, and training required to fly for an airline,” explains Flaherty.

The key to its success, he asserts, lies in its innovative and intensive ways of learning. “Airlines in the region need to continue to use modern technology and training techniques to follow a path of cadet development,” he says. “It has been shown to work across the world over the years and is a critical consideration for key players in the region, if the Middle East wants to become a powerhouse in aviation.”

It is becoming an increasingly competitive field, but this raises the quality bar. - Marwan Atalla

DAEFA’s own training programme focuses on advanced aircraft, state-of-the-art simulators and hi-tech classrooms, and is the only flight academy in the world to use jet-aircraft as part of its Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) programme.

It also offers the ATPL in a 12-14 month integrated ab-initio programme. “We can produce a cadet with a standardised set of skills which are usually at a far higher level than individuals who conduct their training in a more sporadic and unstructured manner,” Flaherty emphasises. “Airlines are looking for pilots with advanced, airline style training. They want pilots who have been exposed to complex aircraft and have an understanding of what’s required of an airline pilot.”

With the recession hitting most if not all industries, will the future growth of the aviation industry continue to create such high demand for skilled personnel?

“The economic downturn has come at a time when DAEFA has been finalising the building phases of our business. This has been fortuitous as we built the academy to cope with a high number of cadets and believe we have the luxury of being prepared to weather the industry’s woes,” Flaherty says optimistically.

“But of course our business will be effected if we encounter a shrinking pool of eligible candidates or a significant decrease in demand for new pilots,” he further admits.

Whilst it is possible that aviation training institutes like DAEFA may experience a decrease in students, it is clear that the demand for pilots and other aviation professionals will continue.

According to consultants AT Kearney, the number of pilots required in the UAE and other GCC countries is still set to increase by a staggering 75% by 2020.

Although the pace of growth in terms of passenger traffic is expected to slow considerably, a predicted increase in average annual growth of 7-8% is expected between 2007 and 2015.

“Looking ahead, it is clear that the demand for pilots will exceed the supply by a very significant margin,” highlights McKnight. “One can argue that the current economic slowdown will provide temporary relief, but the issue is still serious. It takes years from when a pilot starts his education and training until he is fit for flying commercial flights.”

As McKnight points out, the region continues to rely heavily upon the recruitment of expatriate pilots to supply the airlines. However, this could all change as better opportunities for pilots become available closer to home.

“As the global pressures continue to mount, large established airlines in Europe, Asia and North America will be forced to become more aggressive in pursuing the global supply market,” he says.

For the region’s aviation industry, local recruitment has never been more important. “For many years the Middle East airlines have depended on expatriate pilots that are trained overseas,” agrees Flaherty.

“However from a cost perspective it makes little financial sense moving forward to have to continue to pay for relocation, high wages and other necessities for pilots that can now be trained locally.”

With the aviation industry still playing ‘catch-up’ in terms of manpower, the economic slow-down could afford the industry with the opportunity to start evening the score between demand and supply.

For the Middle East in particular, this could bode very well for the future in order to cut back on its reliance on expatriate personnel towards locally trained aviation professionals.

The future for aviation trainers does appear to be looking very healthy in spite of the unpredictable economic climate. With the high standard of training facilities now available in the region, the institutes are looking to continue in full force in the future.

“We are confident the college can weather challenges of the current economic environment with strong management and effective use of our resources,” concludes Emirates’ Al Budoor.

“The appeal and diversity of our courses at all levels and our reputation as a leading provider of learning excellence has ensured our student volumes have increased over the years and continue to do so, in spite of the current turbulent economic environment.”

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