Shoring Up The Global Post-COVID-19 Pilot Workforce
With a busy, if operationally complicated summer behind it, global aviation is on the road to post-COVID-19 pandemic normality. But it must face a problem that many in the industry say is intensifying: a pilot shortage.
- Consultancy Oliver Wyman predicts looming pilot shortages
- European Cockpit Association sees training issues for Europe’s pilot workforce
- Cathay Pacific is facing a training backlog for returning crew
In early 2021, going against the grain of the pandemic-related travel disruption dominating industry discourse at the time, consultancy Oliver Wyman forecast an impending pilot shortage. But in a more recent August report, they wrote: “As air travel demand continues to recover, our most recent forecast now projects that demand for pilots will outstrip supply in most regions globally between 2022 and 2024—and continue to worsen over the next decade. . . . We now expect global aviation to be short nearly 80,000 pilots by 2032, absent a downturn in future demand and/or strenuous efforts by the industry to bolster the supply of pilots.”
Outside of North America, the Middle East is the region expected to be hit the soonest by a lack of pilots, with a predicted sharp increase in air travel demand over the next few years leading to a shortage of 3,000 pilots by 2023 and 18,000 by 2032.
Europe has a surplus of pilots and the consultancy expects that to remain the case until the middle of the decade. But there, too, a shortage of 19,000 pilots is expected by 2032, mainly driven by increasing demand.
Tanja Harter, board director for technical affairs for the European Cockpit Association (ECA), sees the supply-and-demand balance tightening in the coming years, following many recent departures.
Airlines, Harter says, hoped to be able to rehire staff as soon as they needed them, but many left the industry entirely and are now difficult to entice back. Simple demographics also mean many more pilots will continue to leave the system over the coming few years.
She points to a more pressing issue. “In terms of license holders, we don’t have a pilot shortage and we have never had one,” Harter tells Aviation Week. “The problem is you can go to a flight school and get a license, but you’re not necessarily trained for the profession. It’s getting more difficult by the minute to attract the right people into the profession, with the right skills and attitude and approach, who are trained well.”
A situation in which costly pilot training is increasingly funded by the individual does not help.
Airways College, a flying school that was based in Agen in southwest France, went into liquidation in April 2021, effectively depriving more than 200 students of training they had already paid for. Fortunately, solutions were found for most of them, notably thanks to support from Paris Flight Training—the company that took over Airways College—and DGAC, the French civil aviation authority.
The cautionary tale had a positive outcome. French pilot union SNPL France ALPA’s response to the Airways closing was to create a charter for best practices, inviting France’s Approved Training Organizations (ATO) to sign. “You’d better not believe every promise about the industry’s incredible need for pilots in the short term,” an SNPL spokesperson warns.
During the COVID-19 crisis, many pilot jobs were preserved thanks to government support, while the demise of carriers such as Aigle Azur, XL Airways and Level France sent experienced pilots into unemployment. In total, 18,000 pilots were laid off in Europe during the onset of COVID-19, and many new pilots’ ratings expired.
Therefore, favorable signs such as Transavia’s hiring plans and the launch of a new cargo carrier by shipping giant CMA CGM should not be overstated, the SNPL spokesperson points out. “We are in an upturn, but we are lacking visibility,” she says. “It is too early to make projections—let’s wait for the winter season to have a solid idea of what the recovery looks like.”
Among other clauses, SNPL’s ATO Charter, which was signed by seven ATOs, limits the first student down payment to 10% of the total of the training contract and requires the possibility of any increase due to external costs (such as fuel) to be specified in the contract. While the charter is not legally binding, students can contact the union to follow up on any complaint.
Thanks to SNPL’s ECA membership, other unions are interested in creating a similar charter at the European level, the SNPL spokesperson says.
Iberia, for its part, has seen demand rise to 85% of 2019 levels over the summer, and has been preparing for recovery since early in the pandemic.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was challenging to keep the pilot workforce active, as almost the entire Iberia fleet was grounded due to travel restrictions,” says Manuel Angel Samaniego de Tiedra, Iberia’s training director. “We wanted to be ready for when the travel restrictions were removed and for that, we had to keep our pilots active and their licenses revalidated.
“What we did at Iberia was distribute the few flights operating among all our pilots,” he says. “Those who did not reach the minimum of takeoffs and landings with real flights completed their needed flight experience with takeoffs and landings in full-flight simulators. This strategy was what allowed all Iberia pilots to be ready to fly once demand began to recover.”
In June, Iberia launched another recruitment plan for new pilots, its first time hiring pilots since before COVID-19. In July, it hired the first 20 pilots from its Iberia Cadetes program, launched in partnership with pilot academy FTEJerez before the pandemic.
The Spanish carrier has not experienced a pilot shortage, because it did not have to layoff any, thanks to a government scheme that paid employees’ wages for the airline.
Lufthansa offered senior captains attractive early retirement packages to reduce staffing levels during the pandemic, but the rapid return of air travel this year left it struggling to retrain enough pilots quickly enough. The carrier ended up cutting about 12% of summer capacity because of staffing shortages, including for pilots, but has started to build back a pipeline of new recruits. Having given up its ab initio training program in its old form, Lufthansa started the first new course, for 75 cadets, at its European Flight Academy this summer.
Airlines in the Asia-Pacific region have also been focusing on rebuilding pilot numbers. Pilot turnover has been an issue for Cathay Pacific, which experienced a spike in pilot retirements in the first half of the year. The carrier has launched hiring initiatives for the pilots and other staff it will need for its expected rebound.
Cathay’s pilots have been operating under particularly burdensome quarantine requirements due to Hong Kong’s strict COVID-19 border rules, likely a factor in pilot attrition. But even though these measures are now easing, Cathay notes that system recovery will take several months, partly due to a training backlog for returning crew.
AirAsia says it has not been confronted by workforce shortages. The group had brought back 78% of its furloughed pilots by August, and aims to reinstate all its pilot employees by January or February.
The carrier says many of its furloughed flight crew were trained in other parts of its operation, including digital businesses. Pilot licenses were kept active and recurrent training maintained, meaning AirAsia can reinstate furloughed pilots as soon as they are needed, the airline says.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) retained a large number of pilots through 2020-21, with the aim of supporting the ramp-up of operations when travel restrictions eased. The group has been contacting Singapore-based cadet pilots who had their training disrupted by the pandemic, and will resume their training progressively from October.
Qantas and Virgin Australia reduced their pilot workforces early in the pandemic and have both faced temporary pilot shortages due to high levels of sickness absences, an issue that has affected others in the region. However, both stress that their pilot numbers are adequate to operate their networks.
Qantas has been seeing plenty of applicants for pilot vacancies, encouraged in part by large numbers of recent aircraft orders, including for new models, John Gissing, group executive for associated airlines and services, said during the CAPA – Centre for Aviation Australia-Pacific Aviation Summit on Sept. 14.
The group established a new pilot training academy in Toowoomba, Australia, just before the pandemic struck. It has been busy, despite not being able to attract international students while borders were closed. It now has 150 students.
Australia’s Regional Express Holdings (Rex Airlines) established a pilot cadet program in 2008 after severe pilot attrition highlighted the need for its own source of pilots, although it also trains pilots from other countries.
Now that borders have reopened, Rex’s academy is once again training pilots from Vietnam and Singapore. It holds approvals from five different jurisdictions, including China. The company sees a particular opportunity to tap into the Chinese market again when its borders reopen, says Rex Executive Director Chris Hine.
While many airlines in the Asia-Pacific region cut pilot numbers, Japan’s major carriers kept their pilot workforces relatively intact. All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines (JAL) did not reduce their workforces due to the pandemic, although some JAL employees were assigned to work temporarily in other industries.
Korean Air, which also did not lay off any workers, has enough pilots to serve its network as it resumes more flights and expects to have enough to keep pace with mid-to-long-term growth.
Back in Europe, Harter points to another issue for airlines: ongoing training and qualifications. “Of course, operators cannot go below the regulatory minimum, but in the past years a good number of operators did more than the minimum, which increased the overall level of qualification,” she says.
Now, either for speed or cost reasons, some airlines are opting for the minimum. “We won’t see the effects next year or in the next five years probably, but it could have a long-term effect if it remains that way,” Harter says.
Many airlines have learned the hard way that failing to maintain adequate levels of trained personnel has serious consequences. Harter is hopeful that lessons have been learned. “Quite a few operators have done their homework and learned their lessons. I hope they don’t forget them. As an industry, we’ve learned a lot, so I do hope we’ll transfer it,” she says.