It might sound dramatic, but the aviation industry is fast approaching a juncture that will come to define its future, the chronic shortage of pilots.
Simply put, it has become a victim of its own success as the rapid growth of the sector has led to a significant shortage in the number of trained commercial pilots needed to service growing fleets.
This impending crisis is particularly pertinent in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region. Boeing has forecast that by 2036 over 40% of the entire predicted global demand for commercial airline pilots will be concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region. This amounts to over a quarter of a million commercial pilots.
The potential threat that this statistic poses to the region transcends the aviation industry, and a failure to tackle this crisis head on will have wider economic implications.
Demand for air travel is flourishing across APAC, a trend encapsulated by Vietnam’s aviation sector achieving 30% growth in 2016, and AirAsia’s order book of 393 Airbus narrow body aircraft to meet ever-expanding demand.
This growth has been catalysed by the economic dynamism across the region. South East Asian economies are evolving quickly, fostering a growing South East Asian middle class with more expendable income and an appetite for international travel.
Improved demand has in turn facilitated the rise of the low-cost carrier as the likes of Cebu Pacific and AirAsia have made flying more affordable and more available than ever before. Fleets are expanding to reflect this – over 15,000 new commercial aircraft will be delivered to Asia over the next twenty years.
But as demand for commercial flight soars, efforts to train enough pilots to match this demand are still struggling to get off the ground. The effects of the pilot shortage are being felt already, and are only set to worsen.
Up until recently, the APAC region was only able to train around 5,000 pilots per year, a chasm away from the numbers needed to service Asia-Pacific’s fast growing fleets.
And the consequences of this shortage are being felt already, with steep increases in pilot compensation packages to attract foreign pilots.
The financial implications of South East Asian countries failing to train sufficient pilots are twofold. Firstly, cancelling flights costs airlines customers, and income. And secondly, the lack of viable domestic options is forcing Asian carriers to pay a premium to hire expat pilots from Europe and South America as a short-term fix. This model is expensive and unsustainable in the long-term.
If airlines continue to expensively outsource piloting to Europe and South America, rising costs will eventually be passed onto the consumer, and herein lies the broader danger.
Commercial aviation is a driver of tourism, globalisation, trade and economic growth. The sector is responsible for 3.5% of global GDP and the implications of a pilot shortage will have a knock on impact on regional investment and broader economic development far beyond the aviation world.
The first step the industry must take to rectify this problem is to invest in greater regional pilot training infrastructure to nurture more domestic talent. Though there are a number of flying schools operating across APAC, more modern and high tech facilities are required and the creation of more high quality facilities would be a starting point to combatting the extortionate hiring of pilots from other continents.
We are seeing the beginnings of a response from the industry, as last year, Airbus and Singapore Airlines launched a training centre with the capability to teach more than 10,000 trainees annually. This is a starting point, but there is plenty more to do.
A rethink of traditional training methods has now become a necessity. Technology has altered the world around us and has the capability to drastically optimise training solutions. The traditional ATPL graduates complete in excess of 200 hours of flight time, but with new state-of-the-art simulators this time can be significantly reduced to make the process more efficient.
At Alpha Aviation Group, we strongly advocate the Multi-Crew Pilot License, a programme placing an increased emphasis on the use of simulators. A broader commitment to innovative methods such as the multi-pilot licence (MPL) will help to streamline the training process.
We are now seeing more airlines turn to the MPL as it enables pilot training to be aligned with the training to the airlines SOPs (standards of procedures) making the pilots airline ready from Day 1.
Some timidity towards the license exists across the industry, but as more airlines make a success of it, this will dissipate. Airlines, regulators and pilot training schools must all be encouraged to adapt their methods to move with the necessity of the times.
But optimising training solutions will only be suitably impactful if the aviation world can get cadets signing up. In this sense the challenges that the aviation industry face are not just economical and technical, but social.
A plethora of stereotypes still surround the sector, acting as an invisible barrier to more young people becoming cadets. Young people can be put off by the idea of being away from home for an extended period of time, the notion of working excessive hours, and by the prospect of simply being unable to afford the expensive training courses.
The picture that is painted of a career in the cockpit, as so often is the case, does not match up to the reality. Financial barriers can be overcome, with many flying schools offering financial support in the form of study now pay later programmes.
These messages need to be conveyed to young people by airlines, training schools and governments. The next generation have an opportunity to pursue a career as a pilot and see the world in the process, now more than ever we need to show them what a special prospect this is.
Bridging the generational divide does represent a challenge, but it is one that pales in comparison to bridging the gender divide in commercial airline piloting. There has been a push in recent years to encourage more women to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and move into STEM careers. In spite of this, a mere 3% of the world’s commercial airline pilots are women.
This can be explained in part by many airline pilots having made the commercial move having first flown in the military – a role that tends to favour men. But beyond this practicality, a cultural stigma remains attached to piloting, and it is still viewed as a ‘male’ job in some quarters.
Some airlines and training providers are working to combat this, EasyJet being one such example. They are looking to recruit significantly more female pilots, and have set themselves the ambitious target of 20% of their recruits being female by 2020. Whether this is feasible or not remains to be seen, but it is an admirable level of aspiration that others would do well to emulate.
An overhaul in societal attitudes can pave the way for more women to have a profound impact on the world of aviation. Piloting is about hard work and ability rather than gender, and that is a message that cannot be reinforced enough.
Glimmers of change are starting to shine through: Kate McWilliams has become the world’s youngest commercial airline captain at the age of 26, a very exciting development, whilst Air India earlier this year flew around the world with an all-female crew.
These stories demonstrate the fact that the talent is there, but until such examples become the norm rather than the exception, there is still more work to do.
This is a very exciting time for aviation in the Asia-Pacific region, but one fraught with risk. With foresight and application, it will be possible to overcome the pilot crisis, and to keep South East Asia booming.