Low Cost & Regional

Call to cockpit: How the airline industry is addressing the pilot shortage

Pilots sitting in cockpit area

The airline industry’s scramble for pilots is nothing new, but with some carriers cancelling flights and reducing schedules as a result, it may be time to make some fundamental changes to deal with the pilot shortage.

We have all sniggered at the moment Otto, the inflatable autopilot is deployed in the film Airplane! The idea of unmanned flight decks, however, is a development many believe will come to fruition in the future.

This technological advance could ultimately overcome one of the biggest issues facing the natural growth of the air transport industry – a lack of skilled pilots. But while trials could commence this decade, it is likely to be a couple of generations until we see real adoption of unmanned technology.

In an industry predicted to grow at over 4 per cent a year over the next 20 years, the question becomes – how to survive until then? The concern over pilot shortage has been a topic of discussion for a number of years, but the issue was thrust firmly into the spotlight in 2017.

In Europe, Norwegian, one of the industry’s fastest-expanding carriers, described crewing issues as a “fundamental problem” for the business, citing flights it had to cancel at peak times this summer due to a lack of resources.

More recently, Ryanair firmly placed the pilot shortage issue in the public eye following “a material failure in the management of our pilot rostering function”.

While the Irish budget carrier claimed its problems were of its own making, and asserted that it is “not short of crews” with a pool of over 4,200 pilots (5.2 crews per aircraft) and an additional 1,000 arrivals through the full calendar year, found itself having to cancel around 50 flights per day in September and October, and is grounding 25 aircraft (6 per cent of its fleet) through the current winter schedule.

This mismanagement has cost the airline some €25 million in 1H17 costs solely to meet EU261 [passenger rights] obligations.

Perhaps more worryingly, across the Atlantic, US-carrier Horizon Air introduced a planned cut of almost 7 per cent to its future flight schedules due to a lack of available pilots to operate flights from June 2017, resulting in the cancellation of 318 flights that month alone.

The Horizon Air example highlights a serious pipeline issue, as pilots have traditionally used regional operators as stepping stones to build hours to secure employment with larger mainline operators.

Pilot shortage: BA CityFlyer, pilot training, recruitment
BA CityFlyer has an ongoing campaign to recruit new captains

Horizon Air says the ongoing pilot shortage, coupled with the airline’s unprecedented growth as it has added aircraft, “created a perfect storm”, while Ryanair credited a number of factors, including allocation of holidays and recruitment delays as causing its own “perfect storm of one-off pilot shortages”.

The use of ‘perfect storm’ may be an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the issue. It is, by definition “an especially bad situation caused by a combination of unfavourable circumstances”.

But it is clear that unless a significant change in mindset concerning pilot training and recruitment is introduced, the issue of pilot shortages will only be exacerbated in the coming years. The US regional market is particularly badly hit by the crisis.

The Regional Airline Association (RAA) says regional airlines are the only remaining source of scheduled commercial air service, at nearly two-thirds of the nation’s airports.

Although US regional airlines are working hard to attract and support the next generation of aviators, career path barriers and the high cost of training have placed this career out of reach for many Americans. As a result, too few commercial airline pilots are available to fly all of today’s routes, let alone meet the demands of tomorrow’s air travellers.

As the US regional airline industry contracted under the worsening pilot shortage between 2013 and 2016, 156 airports lost at least 20 per cent of their departures; 52 airports lost at least 50 per cent; 29 airports lost at least 75 per cent; and 18 airports lost all of their commercial air services, according to data from RAA.

It is the smallest communities that have been hardest hit, in turn contributing to the concerning urbanisation of GDP in the US, as the already marked gulf between rural and urban access to air service widens.

Without intervention, the RAA says these impacts will further deepen, as major US airlines prepare to hire the equivalent of the entire regional airline pilot workforce within the next three years.

In its latest market forecast for the 20 year period between 2017 and 2036, Airbus says increasing numbers of first time flyers, rising disposable income spent on air travel, expanding tourism, industry liberalisation, new routes, and evolving airline business models, are driving a need for 34,170 new passenger and 730 new freighter aircraft, worth a combined total of $5.3 trillion.

Pilot shortage, pilot training
Gill says there has to be a mind shift across the entire aviation industry

The manufacturer predicts traffic is set to grow at 4.4 per cent per year, with over 70 per cent of the new units being single-aisle airliners to meet enhanced point-to-point connectivity – 60 per cent for growth and 40 per cent for replacement of less fuel efficient aircraft.

But, with pilot numbers already reaching saturation point, the question looms – where will we find the additional 500,000+ new pilots that will be required to fly the new equipment? Airbus says a doubling in the commercial fleet over the next 20 years will drive a need for 530,000 new pilots and 550,000 new maintenance engineers.

It has expanded its global network of pilot training locations from 5 to 16 in the space of three years, but that may not be enough to meet the required run rate in order to allow supply to keep up with demand.

Imtiaz Ahmad, director of OEM operations at CAE, a global leader in training for the civil aviation, defence and security, and healthcare markets, says that while the “recognition of a pilot demand shortfall” from an “unprecedented demand level” for new airliners is there, the “pathway to resolution still remains a work in progress”.

“Never has there been this level of pilot demand. The industry faces a real challenge to build a pipeline to crew future aircraft demand,” he adds.

CAE has released its own global pilot demand study to highlight the industry’s needs over the next 10 years, and its analysis identifies a global requirement for 255,000 new airline pilots over the next 10 years to sustain and grow the commercial air transport industry.

Rapid fleet expansion and high pilot retirement rates create a further need to develop 180,000 first officers into new airline captains, far more than in any previous decade. These numbers mean that realistically over half of the pilots flying the world’s commercial aircraft 10 years from now have not yet even started to train.

CAE says this record demand will challenge current pilot recruitment channels and development programmes, and in turn, new and innovative pilot career pathways and training systems will be required to meet the industry’s crewing needs and ever-evolving safety standards.

In 2016, approximately 20,000 pilots entered the airline profession around the world from either airline-focused flight training academies, universities, military and business aviation, or small regional flight clubs and schools.

Pilot shortage, BA CityFlyer
BA CityFlyer will base captains at LCY as well as EDI

This number is around the same as that recorded in 2012, despite the industry having grown notably in that five year period. In the immediate future airlines in regions of rapid growth – most notably across Asia – face limited access to experienced pilots in their markets.

To address this challenge, they generally focus on accelerating the development of junior first officers, a lengthy process, as well as on hiring experienced first officers and captains from more mature markets. The pilot ecosystem has always been based on newly trained pilots taking on first officer roles flying smaller regional turboprop and jet airliners first, to build hours.

This would allow them to later secure employment with larger airlines, initially flying short-haul sectors, but growing in time and experience to get a right-hand seat position on long-haul and, ultimately, command positions.

In the past couple of decades, the arrival and significant growth of the Gulf hub carriers have seen this process accelerate as trained pilots are attracted by high salaries to fly the significant number of additional aircraft entering service.

The proliferation of the low cost carrier (LCC) sector has also changed the dynamics of the industry, most recently across the Asia-Pacific, where the model is still in its infancy. Almost 10 per cent of airline pilots in the Asia-Pacific today are expatriates.

In some instances, airlines in the Middle East source over half of their pilots from outside their region. In fact, earlier this year it was reported that Nesma Airlines was hiring much of Air Botswana’s workforce to fuel its expansion in Saudi Arabia, due to their experience flying the ATR turboprop, a move which crippled the African carrier’s own operations.

The above example is a clear case as to how the pilot pipeline can significantly impact smaller operators which unfortunately find themselves at the bottom of the food chain, unable to match the high salaries and incentives on offer from more established carriers.

Bill Gill, chief pilot at UK carrier bmi regional, tells Low Cost & Regional Airline Business he has seen a “fundamental change” in practices and says it is clear that the UK, in particular, is feeling the global pilot shortage.

He says that with newly accepted cadets having already spent around £120,000 of their own funds to get to this position, they “understandably don’t show loyalty to any one organisation”.

Pilot shortage, pilot training
Never has there been this level of pilot demand

“We are also now seeing a real change in the industry with airlines like BA CityFlyer taking on commanders and employing them as captains; what we call left seat to left seat moves and something that historically has not been done with a general recruit from within policy,” Gill explains.

“As a consequence, in 2016 we had to take on our first trained captain for ten years as we had already promoted all suitable first officers and had lost a lot to other operators.”

While Gill accepts regional airlines such as bmi regional will always have pilot attrition from operators of larger aircraft, he says the turnover rate in the last couple of years has been “particularly high”, and with the airline’s own requirements and terms of codeshare partnerships dictating a robust selection process, it is a monthly challenge to maintain the right balance of new and experienced crews.

Bmi regional has a contract to take on 70 pilots from CAE Parc Aviation over a five year period and has already secured or committed to 58 in just three years. Alongside new recruits, it has also been adding experienced first officers with hours under their belt who can be expedited into captain positions.

A recent pilot open day in Munich has also successfully secured interest from former airberlin pilots and crews of Transavia’s failed Munich operation.

Notably, the airline has also recently completed the command upgrade of its first-ever cadet, just three years after the individual joined them, in the hope his experience will help it to highlight what can be achieved by showing loyalty with a smaller airline.

Gill acknowledges that, with just 20 aircraft and around 160 pilots at bmi regional, there are opportunities alongside general promotion to secure line trainer and even management positions.

“We certainly cannot match the larger airlines on salaries, but can beat them on working conditions and locations, plus our general approach to business. We have bases down the length of the UK from Aberdeen in Scotland, Newcastle in the North, via Birmingham, down to Bristol, and at Derry in Northern Ireland. We also have crew in East Midlands, Brussels, Munich, and points across Scandinavia [which] are a major strength to supporting pilot flexibility.”

The airline is working hard to overcome its own unique pilot recruitment issues related to fleet type and selection terms alongside the general industry trends, but the climate is not in its favour.

Effectively, airlines and their training partners will need to produce an average of 70 new type-rated pilots per day globally to match the record high aircraft delivery rate and account for pilot attrition, and that is something many in the industry feel is not sustainable under current systems.

It is clear that consumers are enjoying the enhanced mobility that new air services and particularly the LCCs have delivered, and the move away from traditional fortnight holidays in the sun to more regular shorter breaks.

Now they have the wind beneath their wings, it is going to be hard to break the habit, so it will take major recruitment drives to ensure there are enough pilots to fly all the additional aircraft that will be flying in future decades.

Bmi regional is already working on slowing down this pilot attrition, Gill says, and suggests as a short-term solution that retirement age could be increased. “I’ve seen pilots retiring these past few years at 65 that were fit as a fiddle, maybe it is something to consider.”

However, longer-term he says that at some point in the near future there will have to be a shift in mindset across the entire industry to make the pilot role as attractive as it was historically. “The number of people starting out in the industry is declining,” he explains, mainly due to the huge costs of training (now borne by the individual), making it a less attractive lifestyle.

“As an industry, we need to address this,” he says. “I’m convinced at some point airlines are going to have to take responsibility to train their pilots again. I believe that is starting to happen with British Airways with its cadet training scheme.”

In fact, British Airways’ regional subsidiary BA CityFlyer has an ongoing campaign to recruit new captains, having held an open day at the end of November in Birmingham, England. The Birmingham event aimed at attracting experienced direct entry captains to join the growing business.

These new captains will eventually operate services out of one of the airline’s two main bases at London City and Edinburgh. BA CityFlyer currently has 215 pilots, 104 captains and 111 first officers. The airline is also one of the biggest employers of female pilots, representing 15 per cent of the workforce in total, including eight captains.

Back at bmi regional, Gill warns that if the industry must attract candidates to become pilots at the entry-level. “We need to make the job more attractive from the point of view of salary and lifestyle and need to – at the very least – share the training costs,” he hazards.

And the idea that computers can ultimately replace manned flight to overcome this issue? “Not in my working life,” Gill says.

Editor’s Note: The post was originally published in January 2018.

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