The global aviation industry has faced numerous challenges over the past couple of years. Travel bans, competitive pricing, allegations of subsidies and information technology (IT) issues have put the industry in the media spotlight.
One of the most shocking occurrences was when Ryanair announced it would cancel 18,000 flights between November 2017 and March 2018, resulting in a public relations nightmare and trouble with regulators. However, what was most startling about the Ryanair decision was the reason behind it: the airline had lost control of planning for pilot holidays. While Ryanair might be one of the first airlines in Europe to face tangible pressures, pilot shortage is a global problem that must be addressed in order to avoid a detrimental long-term impact on the industry. A long-term solution is the only way to do so.
The aviation sector currently employs 500,000 professional pilots worldwide. However, reports indicate that it will need 600,000 more in the next 20 years as pilots retire, the industry grows by six percent per year and 35,000 new airliners enter the market. Accordingly, industry leaders must get serious about finding a sustainable solution to appointing appropriate human resources to support this growth. This will not happen without the collaboration of manufacturers, training schools, airlines and other related institutions.
Being a pilot used to be perceived as one of the most exciting career choices available, but today we are competing with a range of opportunities that didn’t even exist a decade ago. In order to overcome this challenge, the pilot profession must reinforce its appeal.
To attract new joiners, one of the key elements is an attractive salary and benefits package, as well as support for training costs, either direct or through industry-based funding institutions.
Initial training costs can actually dissuade many students who would otherwise be keen to pursue the pilot profession. In the UK, in addition to the challenge of attracting the interest of prospective students, each student has to currently factor in a sum of GBP100,000 (over AED500,000) to be paid to the flight school for an 18-24 month training programme. Students pay for this programme themselves.
To earn a full professional Airline Transport Pilot License (ATP), students then have to undergo training for their aircraft type, and after that gain 1,500 hours in a multi-crew environment to receive the full ATP. Typically, this takes two to three years, a period in which the airline pays a reduced salary but covers the initial training costs of GBP30,000 (more than AED150,000), with the pilot being committed to the airline that paid for it.
In the UAE, airlines have made strides in improving their training offering. In 2017, the Emirates Flight Training Academy, which is one of the most advanced and integrated aviation training facilities in the world, was opened.
The commitment of Emirates to support and develop pilots for its own operations as well as for the broader aviation industry is commendable, but there is a wider issue at hand.
Long gone are the times when pilots were employed by one airline throughout their careers; nowadays, commercial pilots change jobs an average of seven times in their working lives. Currently, all aircraft are flown with procedures that are prescribed by the operating airline and its regulator, sometimes widely different from operator to operator.
Every airline will, therefore, have its own introductory training, which means that joining pilots must re-learn a set of new information every time. While the manufacturer offers a clear recommendation of standard operating procedures for each of its aircraft, each introductory training into a new airline employer can take up to six months. Following one standard operating procedure, published by the manufacturer, could be an opportunity to reduce costs and pilot headcounts needed for all this additional training.
As the pilot has become a global employee, the airlines also have to be cognisant of the cultural challenge this creates. Emirates created many years ago a special department for this task.
Rather than focusing primarily on technical knowledge of a specific type or make of aircraft and airline rules for licensing, it is important to educate pilots for eight core competencies that will allow them to transfer their knowledge and skills more effectively.
Competencies such as communication, leadership, workload management, manual flying and automatic flying will be introduced in the next two years by ICAO, the UN body regulating all global aviation rules. Most professions are educated to develop a set of competencies which this profession should be able to demonstrate. The pilots, aircraft engineers and air traffic controllers will now have these competencies defined; and training and education of pilots will significantly change in the future.
The industry must also find a way to support aspiring pilots financially. This could look like a non-profit organisation or a trust funded by manufacturers, governments and airlines that would combine financial resources to fund pilot education. Students could then pay this back with their earned income once they have completed their licenses. Many other university and vocational education programmes are funded in this way, while in some countries such education is offered free of charge.
By securing the endorsement and financial support of manufacturers, governments and airlines, and with more universal training, the aviation industry will attract broader interest and gain a more diverse candidate base, transcending countries and genders. This will open up talent pools that will allow the airline industry to overcome the pilot shortage, and continue to thrive.
The aviation industry is a key contributor to GDP, but it is essential for the financial and professional incentives to be in place to ensure that its most critical asset, the pilots, are properly supported. Only a properly integrated approach to training and career development will achieve this.
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