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Call to cockpit

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, as Richard Maslen reports

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% a year over the next 20 years, the question becomes – how to survive until then?

The concern over pilot shortages 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 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, it found itself having to cancel around 50 flights per day in September and October, and is grounding 25 aircraft (6% 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% 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.

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 recruitment and training is introduced, the issue of pilot shortages will only be exacerbated in the coming years.

The US regional market has been 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% of their departures; 52 airports lost at least 50%; 29 airports lost at least 75%; and 18 airports lost all of their commercial air service, according to data from RAA. It is the smallest communities which 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.

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

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