Piloting pressure

The rapid growth of the local fleet is creating a need for many more pilots. However, with crew now in demand around the world, airlines in the Middle East may soon struggle to find new recruits.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  September 6, 2005

|~||~||~|Flicking through the jobs pages of Flight International, it is easy to see that Middle East airlines are investing heavily in recruiting pilots. Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways all have regular adverts and local private operators, such as National Air Services or the region’s various royal flights, also regularly crop up promoting opportunities for narrowbody and widebody pilots. Such adverts are needed because of the huge growth in the region’s aviation sector. The local fleet is expected to grow by around 600 aircraft over the next 20 years, according to Boeing, which means that around 4800 extra pilots need to be recruited or trained to fly them. This is, of course, in addition to replacing current pilots as they retire. However, it is not just the Middle East that is experiencing rocketing demand for pilots. China, for instance, is expected to need 55,000 pilots over the next 20 years. It is investing heavily in training, but there is still expected to be a shortfall of up to 8000 experienced pilots over the next 10 years, which will force the country into hiring more foreigners. India is also seeing huge growth in its commercial fleet, which is creating a shortage of pilots. Air India Express, for instance, recently had to suspend operations after a number of its pilots were poached by other carriers. The Indian government also stated in July that Air India was 118 pilots short, while Alliance Air, a subsidiary of Indian Airlines, had 40 vacancies. The supply of new pilots in India is also being squeezed, as a number of flight schools have had to suspend lessons because their instructors have been hired to fly for commercial carriers. Coupled with the emerging recovery in aviation elsewhere in the world, this growing demand for pilots is beginning to have an impact in the Middle East, especially at smaller carriers. Oman Air, for instance, which has 100 pilots, is already reporting recruitment difficulties. “It is very challenging, especially with the launch of the new airlines and the expansion of some carriers in the region,” admits Khalfan Al Jufeili, the airline’s senior HR officer, recruitment. Larger carriers also face a challenge, although theirs is more about finding volumes of quality staff. Emirates, for instance, currently has 1200 pilots from 60-plus countries, but it is looking to double this number by 2012. As such, it is aiming to recruit 200 pilots this year, and 300 next year. “It is going to be of that order for the next five years at least,” adds Capt. Alan Stealey, senior vice president, flight operations, Emirates. The airline does have a steady stream of interest from pilots at present, receiving between five and 20 applications a day via its website. Around half of these meet the carrier’s basic requirements and about 50% of the remainder get through the interview and selection process. Recruitment is therefore on track at present, and the airline is confident that this will remain the case. “We certainly do not underestimate the growing challenge [in recruiting pilots] and the fact that, in the future, it may become increasingly competitive to find experienced pilots,” comments Rick Helliwell, Emirates’ recruitment manager. “However, at the moment, our brand is still a good drawcard, and our fleet expansion, as well as the success of the airline, is still attracting plenty of applications from suitably qualified pilots.” Emirates cites a number of reasons for its success in recruiting pilots, including the lifestyle on offer in Dubai, company housing, healthcare coverage and free education for children, which is important for recruiting the experienced crew Emirates is targeting. The tax-free salaries are also highly attractive, and certainly beat anything on offer in China or India. “The UAE [in general] does tend to pay the right sort of money to attract people and, of course, it is seen as a comfortable place to live and work,” comments Fiona Betts, managing director of recruitment agency, Betts Recruitment. The large Gulf carriers, including Emirates, are also appealing to pilots in terms of career development, as they offer the chance to fly modern fleets, including A380s in the near future. First officers are also able to win promotion to captain in just three years, which is much quicker than in other parts of the world. “In Europe and the US, in particular, time to command is very long at the moment, as there is no expansion,” notes Capt. Stealey. Emirates, like other major carriers in the region, also offers stability, which has a strong attraction for pilots who have suffered job losses and insecurity elsewhere. For instance, the airline has recently picked up a number of pilots from SAS, Alitalia and Volare, which have all shed staff for financial reasons. It also has a strong contingent of Canadian pilots, many of whom moved to Dubai following the collapse of Canada 3000. The instability in the US market is also slowly leading to an increase in the number of American pilots at Emirates, which presently stands at just 25. “We are picking up a few more [US] applications,” notes Capt. Stealey. However, while Europe, along with South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, has supplied a large number of the pilots to the region over recent years, this flow may soon start to dry up, as the airline industry there begins to recover. At Flight Training Europe (FTE) in Jerez, Spain, for instance, the last two classes of cadets were all hired by airlines before they had completed their training. “The vast majority of our students are finding employment on graduation,” says Michael Wallis, FTE’s sales manager.||**|||~||~||~|“Pilots from Western Europe who would have been prepared to go into other parts of the world a few years ago no longer need to, because they can get jobs in Europe without difficulty,” agrees Anthony Petteford, managing director, Oxford Aviation Training, a flight school in the UK. “I think people [in the Middle East] have a surprise coming when somebody figures out that this source of pilots has dried up.” And, even if the source does not dry up, it may well become more expensive. “Pilots are now starting to find work, so they are not desperate for employment,” says Betts. “They will therefore only come to you if you are paying a bit more than what they are currently getting and if the overall terms are better.” To boost their supply of pilots, Middle East carriers are also investing in training nationals from their home country. Saudi Arabian Airlines, for instance, is aiming to makes its pilot roster 100% Saudi. Presently, the list of 1442 pilots is just under 90% Saudi, but this proportion is increasing in line with the airline’s investment in training. It has, for instance, launched a number of programmes to recruit secondary school graduates, as well as establishing the Prince Sultan Academy for Aviation, which recently graduated its first batch of 160 pilots. Each year, 30-40 UAE nationals also enter Emirates’ ab initio training programme, which includes studies in both Dubai and Adelaide. Not all the cadets complete the 42 month course, but the airline can boast of 81 UAE national pilots. Oman Air is also training more cadets in line with a government drive to train the country’s nationals — something that is common across the Gulf — and to ease staffing headaches. “We have 70 Omani pilots [at present], but we want more in order to increase our ‘Omanisation’ ratio and to reduce the staff turnover,” says Al Jufeili. Middle East Airlines (MEA) has also recently launched a training programme working with FTE in Spain. The carrier already has an all-Lebanese pilot roster, but because political instability has disrupted training in the country over the last 20 years, many of its 120 pilots are rapidly nearing retirement. “We have to think about replacing our crews now, otherwise, in four years’ time, we will have to find something like 60 pilots,” says Capt. Jean Pierre Nehme, MEA’s head of flight operations. “This is why we are starting [cadet training] today,” he adds. The airline only began advertising the cadet programme a couple of months ago, but it has already received strong interest. Around 6000 people visited the website adverting the programme, and about 10% of them made a formal application. Of these, about 200 came through the first cycle of the testing process, with a second round still to come. On 1st January, 10-15 cadets will begin their training to become pilots. “We have to do this every year,” adds Capt. Nehme. “It is a must, otherwise we will fall behind our plans, which would be catastrophic.” MEA’s new training programme contains a couple of significant differences to the courses it has run in the past, which reflect wider trends in the industry. For instance, the carrier is working with FTE not just for training, but also for the selection process. Airlines have traditionally selected their cadet pilots inhouse, but an increasing number are now relying on training schools to do this. This change is more cost effective for the airlines, and it is also leading to better quality cadets, particularly in the Middle East, as the training schools are more experienced and less corruptible. “People [in the Middle East] always find someone to help them, and we do not want any external interventions, whether political, military or anything else, [affecting the selection process]. This is why we have outsourced our selection committee,” says Capt. Nehme. “Some of the [Middle East] candidates that we have trained in the past were absolutely appalling,” adds Oxford Aviation’s Petteford. “They just could not reach the standard… However, now, there is much more enthusiasm about aptitude rather than privilege.” How the MEA programme is paid for also reflects wider changes in the industry. Previously, the airline would pay for the training and then the pilots would repay this once they had qualified, interest-free. Now, however, pilots have to pay 20% of the US $100,000 programme fee upfront, themselves, and then repay the balance at a commercial rate of interest to MEA over the first 10 years of their careers. This change has transferred the cost of training from MEA to its pilots, but while the airline has gone further than some others in the region, it has not gone as far as many carriers in the rest of the world. In Europe, for instance, the airlines will do a selection process for cadets to go on an approved course and guarantee them a job once they have their JAA ATPL licence. However, it is up to the schools and the pilots, themselves, to arrange the financing. “The big change is the money,” says Wallis. “Pre-9/11, or in the case of MEA, the airline financed the scheme; however, in an approved scheme, it is the student that needs to find the money.” Whether airlines in the Middle East will ever go this far in shifting the financial burden is hard to predict. The cash rich governments in the region are keen on developing skills among nationals in general and state-owned airlines are a good tool for doing this. However, at the same time, any hint of government support may further fuel accusations of subsidies from abroad, and the more business-like carriers are certainly keen on cutting their costs. Either way though, pilots looking at the jobs pages are sure to see many more adverts from the Middle East in the years to come.||**||

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