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Wed 11 Jun 2008 04:00 AM

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Plight of the navigators

How is the shortage of qualified pilots affecting the Middle East's freight industry?

How is the shortage of qualified pilots affecting the Middle East's freight industry? Air Cargo Middle East & India's survey of regional operators reveals the current state of affairs.

With the upheavals currently being experienced in the air transport industry, and with the massive growth witnessed, both in terms of the passenger and cargo sectors in the Middle East and India, it was hardly surprising that IATA joined forces with the US-based Flight Safety Foundation in February this year to try and tackle the increasing shortage of pilots.

According to IATA, the global airline fleet is estimated to grow by 17,000 aircraft by 2020, and if current training procedures are not revamped, the industry will face a shortage of more than 42,000 pilots.

Certainly the Middle East has risk, by virtue of the fact that the region has so many aircraft on order.

So what action can regional operators take to ward off the ensuing crisis? Air Cargo Middle East & India has asked a cross-section of the aviation industry, from recruitment professionals to all-cargo units to flag carriers, about their current procedures for employing skilled personnel and their hopes and fears for the future.

Freight transport is seen by some as being less glamorous than passenger flights or non-scheduled general aviation (GA), and this would appear to put the freight industry at the bottom of the pile when it comes to recruiting and maintaining its pilot roster.

However, regional operators seem to be coping robustly with a phenomenon that is affecting other parts of the world more severely. A proactive recruitment policy to match the increasing number of frequencies and destinations being added to schedules has certainly helped, as have carefully monitored salary and benefits policies.

Such strategies, when effective, can help to alleviate the most pressing concern felt both by airlines and the general public: that of flight safety.

"When you consider that the two major airframers are producing in excess of 3500 aircraft each year, without the additional regionals, GA and rotary - added to the fact that aircraft are staying in service longer to absorb capacity - the net result is that more aircraft need to be piloted, crewed, maintained and serviced," says Phil Newton, head of sales and marketing at UK-based air personnel recruitment firm Touch Aviation.

In terms of the areas most at risk from a pilot shortage, Newton sees the Middle East and Asia, particularly India, as being particularly susceptible.

"Certainly the Middle East has risk, by virtue of the fact that the region has so many aircraft on order, and so does India, where the growth is phenomenal, but where there is very little indigenous experience," he remarks.

However, the recruitment processes at the major carriers seem strong enough to withstand the skills drain being felt in other regions, at the very least in the short term.

Emirates Airline, the parent of Emirates SkyCargo is, in particular, benefiting from the consolidation in the US aviation industry, as 50% of the applicants to its recruitment process are from the States.

"US-based first officers are having to wait a long time to receive their command; they are aware they can get this a lot quicker at Emirates," says Capt Alan Stealey, the divisional senior vice-president of flight operations at Emirates.

"In addition, we have also run a three-year cadet programme for locals for the last 15 years, which is only open to UAE nationals. As of 31 March, there were 136 Emirati pilots working for Emirates who have qualified through our cadet programme," he adds.

The giant has spread a wide net when it comes to amassing staff; there are 83 different nationalities on its pilot roster, with the majority of these hailing from Britain, Australia, Canada, South Africa, the United States and the UAE.

Whereas Emirates currently employs just under 2000 pilots to navigate its ever-increasing fleet, smaller cargo-only operators have a fraction of that number.

Abu Dhabi-based Maximus Air Cargo has 21 pilots flying its Hercules and Airbus A300-600RF freighters and 13 Ukrainian pilots operating its Antonov and Ilyushin fleet under a foreign AOC.

All pilots are hired with type rating and experience, and the company is currently planning a full type rating course with Lufthansa.

Turkish airfreight operator ACT Airlines has a total of 45 pilots on its books, all of whom are Turkish; a quarter of these are trained to type rating standard by the company, and three quarters are already qualified and are recruited from elsewhere.

For all airlines, there is inevitably a heavy focus on the package that will lure new personnel and retain them.

For Emirates, enticements include the prospect of flying a young and wholly international fleet, at an airline where junior pilots will attain command status faster than elsewhere by virtue of the fact that the carrier is expanding so quickly.

On top of free accommodation, its pilots also receive an education allowance for their children, interest-free loans, discounted flights and currency protection.

We are not complacent; we monitor annually and monthly the pilots' remuneration to ensure they are getting a good package, because if a pilot leaves it is a loss of investment for us," says Capt Stealey.A more varied approach to the pay packet that pilots receive is certainly key to attracting the best staff, insists Newton.

"It is not necessarily about the salary but the whole package, and I feel that companies are going to have to be more creative in putting together packages to attract and, equally importantly, to keep crew. People always talk about their salaries and benefits, and existing employees will flee if they believe new employees are receiving more than they are," he observes.

Simply raising salaries can have an effect on a company's bottom line of course, especially in a smaller firm, where the margins are tighter.

Companies are going to have to be more creative about putting together packages to attract crew.

"We offer our crew a very attractive salary associated with a block roster - three weeks duty and one week off - added to which are very competitive benefits," says Maximus' vice-president of flight operations and chief pilot, Capt Werner Borchert.

"We have had to increase our salaries, and the costs have increased as a result. Higher costs lead to higher prices for the customer," he adds.

Both of the smaller operators we surveyed had found it tough to recruit crew in the past, although this problem appears to have been negated, for now.

"We recruit according to Turkish Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (TGCA) rules, which are quite complicated and which were dealt with by our human resources department," says Adnan Cingil, a flight operations coordinator for ACT Airlines.

"As a result of the market situation, we did have some difficulty in training and recruiting in the past, so we received Type Rating Training Organisation (TRTO) status from the TGCA," he adds. Maximus has had to face similar experiences.

"We did have difficulties with recruitment, and had to take seconded crews from other airlines," says Capt Borchert. "However, with the improved package and the attractive roster, we are now managing the situation effectively."

With regard to safety, in terms of experience and fatigue, operators do not see a problem occurring in the long term specifically due to the rigid flight-time duty regulations employed both by national and international aviation authorities.

However, the fact that safety cannot be compromised leads to a further headache - the potential grounding of fleets and the obvious loss of revenue that then ensues.

"The shortage of qualified pilots is already an issue for the entire airline industry, not just for cargo operators," says Capt Borchert. "The Chinese firm, Jade Cargo, is a good example.

A number of their aircraft - the new 747-400ERF freighters - were left sitting on the tarmac recently due to the lack of pilots. Maximus will not be compromising on any safety-related aspects."

But what is the most significant difference between flying cargo and passenger aircraft? Other than the perceived glamour of the passenger services, there are a number of other factors at play.

"Cargo operations are not seen by some as being as stressful as passenger flights, but duty times for freight work are always higher than they are for their passenger counterparts, and, more importantly, 90% of cargo operations take place at night," indicates Cingil.

This is an assessment with which Newton agrees.

"The demand on cargo crew is perhaps more pressured due to the drive to keep on-ground time to an absolute minimum," he explains. "Some people do not wish to engage, or are unable to cope with this pressure."

So what can regional providers do to stave off recruitment shortages in the short and long terms? An obvious answer is the original package that attracts new pilots to an airline, both in terms of salaries and benefits, but of equal importance are monthly and yearly salary checks to ensure that personnel are being remunerated adequately.

Another solution is the extension of the catchment area that airlines use to target new recruits.

The Emirates experience shows that the dedicated training of local talent combined with a thorough overseas employment network can pay dividends, although this presents its own difficulties for the smaller operators.

In addition, the promise of an attractive block roster for cargo pilots can also prove a temptation.

However, it is debatable whether higher salaries and ever more seductive benefits can assuage the all-important headache currently afflicting the industry; the paradox of a massive influx of aircraft matched by a dwindling number of personnel to fly them.

Emirates is looking to recruit around 400 more pilots in this fiscal year and has expressed confidence in its ability to find them. Such short-term aspirations should be achievable, but the longer-term assessment of the future still looks murky.

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