There is good news and bad news for the airline industry in Indonesia. On the upside, the country is experiencing an unprecedented growth of passengers, airlines and aircraft orders. But its civil aviation regulators are concerned that there will not be enough skilled personnel to handle the increase.

Herry Bakti, head of the country's Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DJPU), says: “There are too many aircraft coming in [to Indonesia]. It is easy to buy aircraft—but our job is to consider who will run and operate them.”

And Bakti goes beyond merely stating the problem, he outlines a remedy for the situation in the short-term. “At the moment there are not enough trained people to go round. So we may have to limit numbers of aircraft being imported, no matter how many [orders] have been made.”

The revelation that regulators could simply refuse to grant import and operational licences for aircraft that step beyond the DJPU's regulated safe-manning levels could prove troubling for airlines. Especially if financial growth is predicated on keeping all that valuable hardware in the air.

Makers and leasing companies have been particularly successful in Indonesia when it comes to aircraft sales in the last couple of years. The country's airlines account for hundreds of aircraft orders. Lion Air has ordered 234 A320s and 230 Boeing 737s, flag-carrier Garuda Indonesia is aiming for a fleet of 350-400 aircraft by 2025, and Sriwijaya Air is looking to take at least 45 737-800s and Embraer 190s in the next few years.

But, says Bakti, staffing shortages loom as a result of this dramatic growth—most significantly in the low-cost carrier (LCC) sector.

Bakti emphasizes that the DJPU is prepared to restrict the number of import permits for new aircraft if LCC personnel training fails to meet the demands of the agency's standard safety operating procedures.

The DJPU needs to ensure due diligence has been adhered to when it comes to ongoing safe operation, flight and maintenance, Bakti says. “The operator has to [prove] it has the staff, [and that they have] the training and skills to operate that aircraft safely, as well as the aircraft it already flies with.”

This caveat, said Bakti, extends across all aviation personnel—including pilots, safety sign-off officers and all crew operations.

Indonesia is not alone. The shortage of trained staff is becoming an increasingly restrictive bottleneck across many southeast Asian countries.

According to Chow Kok Wah, senior vice president of line maintenance at Singapore International Airlines Engineering Co., current levels of “explosive growth” across the region are already having an impact on staffing.

“We are seeing [staffing] challenges in Singapore and because of that, labor rates are already going up here,” he says. Chow says many MRO operators are consequently looking to move to countries where the cost of doing business is lower; some MROs are contemplating the proposed expansion of maintenance facilities on Batam and Bintan islands, near Singapore. But that move would only compound the problem for Indonesia's native carriers.

Richard Budihadianto, president & CEO of GMF, Garuda Indonesia's MRO offshoot, echoes the concerns of his competitors. “The biggest problem is manpower,” he says. “Infrastructure and equipment is easy. But manpower poses a serious gap—even if [we] double the manpower we will only be able to expand by 50% of what is planned.”

Budihadianto estimates Indonesia will need 3,000 new engineers to keep up with current growth levels, but training courses there certify only around 700 technicians a year, he warns.

Lion Group, obviously recognizing the potential problem, has established its own training center with 30 personnel (technicians and instructors) processing 860 cabin crew, 150 pilots, 160 ground staff and 300 technicians at any one time, says the group director of technical operations, Henry Mudigdo.

Lion is stepping up its training capacity in a bid to keep the DJPU happy. It recently signed a $250 million deal with Airbus that will eventually see 21 new Airbus, Boeing and ATR flight simulators providing pilot training at the Angkasa Aviation Academy at Jakarta's Soekarno–Hatta International Airport. “We currently have 30 personnel including technicians and instructors [at the] center,” says Mudigdo. “This deal with Airbus will expand our [training capacity] fivefold.”

But Bakti warns that it may not be enough. “If there is not [the staff] to run these all these new [ordered] aircraft safely then they will stay on the ground,” he asserts.

Approximately 150 inspectors work across the nation's 20 scheduled and 40 charter airlines. Bakti says that this group “ensures compliance across the industry,” but that the DJPU is striving to bring on at least 25 more inspectors each year to handle the influx of new aircraft and airline personnel.

“It is a big challenge for us, and we are coping as of now,” he says. “But if growth continues as it is, then we could have a problem with [the number of inspectors] too,” adds Bakti.

The DJPU is prepared to recruit overseas to fill vacancies and to step up recruitment and training from local sources within Indonesia. But Bakti admits that salaries are about the same as paid to pilots, so competition would likely be strong.

“We are quite capable now, and have a good mix of [young engineers in training] and experienced [inspectors]. We will join in International Civil Aviation Organization training projects, too; but we can of course bring in hires from overseas if we have to,” he reiterates.

Although the staffing shortage is particularly acute in Indonesia, the dearth of personnel extends beyond the country and region.

Bakti emphasizes that “this is a global human resources problem,” which is why he welcomes the recent Lion Air and Airbus training agreement.

“We are emphasizing that in the aviation industry we have to take things in order: first safety, next security, then service. If we get these three in the right order we will [have] a good business,” Bakti says.

If not, there could be a lot of parked aircraft at Soekarno–Hatta.