Pilot Recruitment: Ready for Take-Off?24 March 2011
Economic woes and high training costs have combined to ground the pilot recruitment market in recent years. Improving market stability and innovative new training technologies are however breathing new life into pilot programs. Guy Richards reports.
Much like the stepping aboard a plane and jetting off abroad, our image of an airline pilot has lost much of its glamour down the years. With the boom in low-cost airlines, air travel is hardly more exotic then buses and so the prestige of piloting them has diminished.
Add to that the historical factors of operators' single-digit profit margins - and their inevitable impact on salaries, and terms and conditions - together with the typically six-figure cost of training coupled with the latest economic downturn and you have a business-class recipe for a weak recruitment market.
But the market is improving now, and fast. CTC Aviation Group executive practising pilot and director of specialist flight training and recruitment organisation Capt Lee Woodward, believes that, "Changes in the market are linked to airline growth, and we're entering a boom period again after the recent economic downturn.
"Globally the market is very buoyant at the moment, and the growth in commercial airline travel is leading the way."
Rising recruitment - hotspots
There are obvious hotspots, China being the most obvious. "Some analysts predict that China will need 30,000 new pilots over the next 20 years, as the country sees its number of airliners grow from 3,500 currently to an estimated 8,500," according to Woodward.
"India represents another hotspot. In January 2011, for example, IndiGo signed a £10bn ($16.3bn) deal for 180 Airbuses - the largest order ever - so you can imagine the effect that will have on demand for pilots.
"In Europe, meanwhile, easyJet has taken on nearly 300 new cadets since April 2010, while in the Middle East, for 2011-12, Emirates Airlines is said to be looking to recruit almost 500 pilots - with a similar number planned for 2012-13 - and flydubai, with whom we have an exclusive contract, has asked us to supply 400 pilots between 2011 and 2013."
Such demand makes this a seller's market on an international scale. Echoing Woodward's views, a spokesman for specialist recruiter Morson Wynnwith says, "The biggest growth in terms of fleet expansion is being seen in Asia, India and the Middle East, which is where we are forecasting the demand for pilot recruitment. To source available talent, Morson has therefore turned to expat recruitment.
"The biggest challenge for airlines is to ensure that contracts are attractive enough to persuade them to relocate. Competition here is fierce, and the airlines offering the best terms are the most successful in their recruitment campaigns."
Woodward agrees, adding, "Competition for pilots has led to better salary deals, especially among the regional operators, as well as improved roster patterns and working conditions. This has improved pilot retention in some instances, to the extent that operators such as easyJet and flyBe have now changed from being 'feeders' of pilots to the majors to airlines of choice in their own right."
High training costs for pilots
The cost of training is still the major barrier to bringing much-needed new blood into the industry. One example of a successful strategy is a cost repayment scheme.
"To counter high training costs, the CTC has a security bond scheme with some airlines whereby almost all of a pilot's training costs can be repaid by the airline over a number of years after they've qualified and joined the airline," Woodward says.
The commercial aviation market can't be viewed in isolation, however; it has an almost osmotic relationship with that for rotary-wing pilots and those in corporate and security roles.
According to a recruitment specialist in the helicopter, corporate and security market, who asked not be named, "Although separate, the recruitment markets for fixed and rotary-wing pilots are linked by the 'pull factor' for rotary pilots moving across to the airlines.
"On the rotary side, the recession has impacted disproportionately on the corporate charter rotary market. The impact of this is that some established rotary pilots with instrument ratings are taking the opportunity to move to fixed wing, creating some movement in an otherwise static market."
Also, he says, the security market has grown considerably since the Bush / Rumsfeld decision in 2003 to employ contractors in a number of specialist military support roles in Iraq.
This has only continued to grow in Afghanistan, with some nations seeing it as a cost-effective and 'commitment-light' way of solving issues such as ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) and logistics support.
"While the market could shrink with the withdrawal from Iraq and drawdown in Afghanistan, the converse could be true in that the market will continue to develop as contractors backfill more of the mainstream military roles," he says. "This will create a situation where security contractors will be required to move 'upstream' and raise their game by embracing technology such as night-vision goggles and forward-looking infrared.
"The skills required to operate this technology and the understanding of tactics in non-benign environments can only be cost-effectively sourced from experienced ex-military manpower and therefore, the draw into these roles is likely to increase."
A new methodology for technology
In the civil sector, however, it's not so much that the technology to train recruits is changing, more the way it's being used. It's a given that the technology is state of the art - it has to be, if only for it to be relevant - but what's new is a fresh approach to the methodology.
As Woodward explains, "Not only are we using technology that is as close as possible to that on the flight deck of the modern airliner for which the pilot is being trained, we're also adopting training practices that are as similar as possible to the way the pilots will be expected to operate in the airline - we're moving from a 'tick-box' approach that simply meets the requirements of the regulations to one where the methodology enhances the technology."
So the demand for pilots is there again, and recruitment specialists are adapting to these new paradigms. The glamour may have all but gone but the goods on offer are improving all the time.