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Friday, April 29, 2016, 14:22

Sky-high demand for pilots

By KARL WILSON
Sky-high demand for pilots
A Philippine Airlines pilot operates the controls of an Airbus A321-200 passenger plane at the company’s hangar in Manila. Asia currently has 65,000 registered commercial pilots and is expected to require 200,000 over the next 20 years as the aviation sector grows. (AFP)
Twenty years of rapid economic growth in Asia has bolstered income levels, creating a new wave of demand for air travel from middle-income households while market liberalization has enabled regional low-cost carriers to thrive.

The world’s biggest commercial aircraft manufacturer Boeing estimates that more than 100 million new passengers will enter the Asia aviation market annually for the foreseeable future.

Amid all this growth, one question looms large: Where are the pilots and engineers going to come from?

According to Boeing, between now and 2034, Asia will need 226,000 new pilots and 238,000 technicians or roughly 40 percent of the global need — more than North America, Africa and Europe combined. The figures were featured in Boeing’s 2015 Pilot & Technician Outlook published last September.

Boeing said China alone will need an extra 100,000 pilots and 106,000 technicians while Southeast Asia will require 57,000 additional pilots and 60,000 technicians. Other parts of the region will also continue to see long-term demand in the tens of thousands for pilots and technicians.

As with personnel demand, the Asia-Pacific region also leads the demand for new commercial aircraft deliveries over the next 20 years.

According to Boeing’s Current Market Outlook 2015-2034, 14,330 new aircraft worth $2.2 trillion will be needed in the Asia-Pacific region by 2034.

A spokesperson for Boeing told China Daily Asia Weekly that airlines are responsible for their own recruitment and training of pilots.

“We are, however, working with partners across the industry to address the forecasted demand with training solutions that enable the best of what Boeing and our subsidiary, Jeppesen, bring to the table,” the spokesperson said without going into specific details.

“Most recently we have launched a pilot development program to take a prospective pilot all the way through a training regimen to where she or he is operationally qualified to begin indoctrination at an airline.

“We are currently in conversations about the program with customers around the world.”

According to Boeing’s 2015 Current Market Outlook, Chinese airlines will require about 6,330 new aircraft worth around $950 billion over the next two decades, which will account for about 17 percent of the global total.

Airbus China said since 2010 the number of new aircraft deliveries have remained above 100 every year, with a total of 158 aircraft delivered last year, representing about one quarter of the total number in the Asia-Pacific region.

Over the next 20 years, Airbus expects China to require about 5,400 new aircraft, comprising 40 percent of deliveries for the whole Asia-Pacific region, the manufacturer said in February.

Speaking at the CAPA Americas Aviation Summit last year, Zhihang Chi, Air China’s vice-president and general manager for North America, described the pilot shortage in Asia as “serious” and “severe”.

At the same conference, held by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, Hainan Airlines vice-president Hou Wei agreed that securing pilots is a problem for Chinese airlines.

A recent report by South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said the country’s carriers were suffering a serious loss of pilots. It said dozens of senior pilots had been “poached” by Chinese carriers which doubled their salaries.

Yonhap said: “While an average pilot-in-command (captain) makes around 100 million won ($87,000) annually at Korean Air, Chinese companies reportedly offer up to 300 million won or even 400 million won depending on the type of aircraft”.

At the opening of the world’s biggest pilot-training facility in Singapore on April 18, Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier told CNBC that Asia faced a “severe shortage” of well-trained pilots as the region’s demand for air travel skyrockets.

He told CNBC the region will need 200,000 commercial pilots over the next 20 years. There are currently 65,000 commercial pilots registered in Asia.

A spokesman for Airbus said that the Airbus Asia Training Centre in Singapore (a joint-venture between the European aircraft manufacturer and Singapore Airlines) when fully operational will have eight full-flight simulators and six cockpit training devices. Airbus has similar facilities in Toulouse, Miami and Beijing.

The average duration of a course at the training center will be two weeks. When the center becomes fully operational, Airbus expects to be able to process 10,000 pilots a year. Some 17 airlines, including the Australian national carrier Qantas, have already signed up to use the facility.

Around the region, flying schools have sprung up to train the next generation of commercial airline pilots but it is still not enough.

“It’s getting very difficult to attract the right type of people,” said Geoffrey Thomas, editor of Airline Ratings.com, an airline safety and products website.

“When looking at the commercial aviation sector today, you have to put it into perspective,” Thomas said.

“If you go back 50 years or so, there was a readily available pool of well-trained pilots who were leaving the military after World War II.”

As that pilot pool dwindled, the airlines turned to the military, he noted, adding: “Here you had a good source of well-trained young men who were eager to move to (commercial airlines such as) Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific … where the pay was much better than the military.”

These days the military aviation sector has become a lot smarter. The length of service at these national air forces is much longer than it used to be and the pay has improved, Thomas said.

“So you are not getting as many pilots moving from that pool anymore (to commercial airlines),” he said. “Apart from that, more and more people are traveling now and the (commercial) airline sector has grown enormously and continues to grow in regions like Asia.”

Thomas said being a commercial airline pilot use to be a “very attractive” job once. However, with the emergence of the low-cost carriers, crews are worked hard and “it is stressful, exhausting work”.

“Sure, good pilots will still gravitate to the major carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Qantas while the not-so-good (pilots will move) to the low-cost carriers,” Thomas said.

In the early days of commercial aviation, five people worked in the cockpit while long-haul flights had relief crews as well.

But, as the aircraft became safer and more sophisticated, the airlines put two people in the cockpit while also relying on computers to fly the aircraft.

“Yes, flying is a lot safer than it once was but, when something goes wrong, it ends up being a big story,” Thomas added.

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