BALPA Chairman, Captain Mark Searle, gave an excellent insight into pilot shortage issues at a Corporate Partner Briefing held at the Royal Aeronautical Society on 11 June 2014 with an informative overview of demand and supply, challenges and opportunities.

Searle’s talk began by looking at demand-based research, highlighting the commonly used research by aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus based on aircraft delivery predictions (both companies predict at least 32,000 passenger aircraft in service over the next 20 years) which point to positive growth in pilot employment. However, he noted that the UK Government’s Department for Transport have forecast a decline in passengers and asked whether the manufacturers were being realistic in their predictions and whether, for example, ‘Black Swan’ events and the cyclical nature of air travel had been accounted for.

Searle also noted that the University of Sussex’s Institute of Management Studies which conducted research failed to successfully predict aviation growth and that meanwhile, routes into aviation careers appear to have reduced.

With most early career pilots embarking on self-funded pilot training programmes, and with several options for pilot training, Searle talked about one of the most common dilemmas for self-funded pilots: whether to do an ‘integrated’ or ‘modular’ programme – with the former being more expensive, but intensive and generally preferred by airline employers, while the modular option offers more flexibility and cheaper overall costs, but in the words of one of his colleagues could become “career suicide” as airlines appear to be turning away completely from newly qualified pilots who have undertaken the modular route.

Searle also discussed another common source of commercial pilots as being those retiring from the military after completing their service. However, fewer military pilots will be available as the impact of defence cuts is felt. Flying Schools are also tightening their financial criteria for self-funded pilots, mostly due to increased restrictions from banks, and funding sources such as the use of parents’ mortgages may also diminish.

The heavy financial burden of pilot training could have an impact on safety too, Searle warned. If a pilot is on a zero-hours contract, will he/she be too afraid to call in sick or fly when too tired, and risk flying when unfit to fly? He also suggested that new cadets will be uncomfortable about reporting concerns to senior management and ‘rocking the boat’ in the early stages of their career for fear of losing their job and being unable to pay back loans.

Searle also expressed concerns about the MPL (Multi-Crew Pilots Licence) route whereby cadets are confined to one specific airline – particularly the risk to the pilot if the airline contracts or ceases trading and he cited the example of Sterling Airlines in Denmark.

Yet, despite all the warnings, Searle noted that there has been no pilot shortage since 2006. This, he explained, may be due in part to changes in retirement ages meaning there are more pilots at the top of the payscale, and fewer available places for younger pilots to come through - he noted that Delta’s youngest pilot is 42. He emphasised the need to manage pilot expectations with regards to recruitment. According to BALPA’s membership fees - which are 1% of basic salary to join - the average salary is around £60K but he noted that many are currently unemployed and there have been cases of their members declaring bankruptcy, unable to pay back their training loans.

For future growth, Searle argued that diversification of the pool of pilots was vital, with new ways of financing pilot training needing to be found. He pointed to the UK shipping industry deal with Government where the introduction of a tonnage tax gave tax relief if ship owners provided training for officers. While Searle questioned the fairness of Air Passenger Duty (APD) and suggested the need to introduce a fairer tax on flying, given the considerable benefits that APD brings the Treasury, Searle asked whether some of APD could be diverted to support pilot training in the future? He also highlighted the need for clearer supply-side research to understand where skills gaps may occur.

These thought-provoking points led to a lively debate under Chatham House Rules with the audience which included employers, universities and training providers. However, with several major conferences coming up, including the International Pilot Training Consortium Conference in the Autumn, a public debate on airline pilot training is certainly on the agenda for 2014.

Rosalind Azouzi
25 June 2014