Murdo Morrison: Trends in pilot recruitment

Published: 12 Jun 2018

Murdo Morrison

Over almost 18 years with FlightGlobal, I’ve been tracking some of the trends in pilot recruitment, and I’ll be occasionally blogging about these here.

I joined FlightGlobal just before 9/11 and, in the crisis for the aviation industry that followed that awful series of events, thousands of pilots were laid off, particularly in North America, but in Europe too. Many of them were nearing retirement but others had barely started their careers. Forced to find alternative work in a hurry, most were lost forever to a cockpit career – I even met one who had become a journalist, although it could be argued that she had abandoned one precarious profession for one with even fewer long-term prospects.

Although there were exceptions – Ryanair famously reacted to the downturn by slashing fares, buying aircraft and taking on pilots – many established carriers were forced to furlough flightcrew and ditch the few cadet and trainee schemes left in the industry.

By the middle of the decade, the tide had begun to turn. The rapid expansion of the Gulf big three, growing demand for air travel in Asia, and a buoyant low-cost sector began to soak up the surplus of pilots. By the dawn of the new decade – and despite the hangover from the global financial crisis – the appetite of airlines for pilots was greater than the supply.

So what was to be done? For some airlines, it was just a case of perhaps making employment more attractive and poaching from smaller, regional, or more fragile carriers. Tax-free salaries, subsidised accommodation, the chance to fly around the world on the latest equipment, and a sunshine lifestyle can be powerful incentives for pilots bored with flying the same old routes in an ageing aircraft for little reward, or facing an uncertain future or leaky pension pot with a tottering flag-carrier.

Others – but arguably not enough – launched, or re-launched cadet schemes, offering paid-for routes into the cockpit for bright youngsters. In emerging markets in the Middle East and Asia, there were government initiatives to encourage their own young citizens to train as pilots.

However, despite all this it is hard to see where the half a million new pilots ICAO reckons will be needed to fly the growing airliner fleet – and to replace those retiring or leaving the profession – over the next 15 years will come from. That works out at more than 640 new pilots joining the profession every week just to keep the metal in the skies.

There are possible solutions. One that appears to be gaining momentum – and the possible support of President Trump – is a move to abolish the “1,500 rule” for new pilots in the USA. Introduced in 2013, it was designed to improve safety after concerns about low-qualified flightcrew risking the lives of passengers. But it has introduced a Catch 22 for young pilots – without a commercial licence they struggle to reach the 1,500 hours, and without having flown 1,500 hours they cannot get a licence.

One suggestion has been to allow new pilots to obtain a licence with restrictions, with hours in the classroom and on simulators replacing actual flight hours. The slow process of getting Congress to agree to a change in the rules has begun, but there is opposition, not least from the unions who argue that raising salaries for pilots – not slashing minimum hours – is the best way to ease the pilot shortage.

While several US airlines – including the regionals, where most pilots in North America generate their hours early in their careers – have vastly improved their packages for entry-level pilots, it is difficult to see how they can justify the sort of hikes that would convince aspiring airline pilots to do the sort of low-paid flying jobs for long enough to accumulate the 1,500h they need to move up to flying passengers.

Over in Europe, Ryanair is slashing its fee for type-rating training from from €30,000 to just €5,000, hoping that will convince youngsters to choose a career with the region’s largest low-cost operator. The Irish airline has managed to sustain an aggressive expansion over the past 10 years, but, like a lot of budget airlines, it suffers from “poaching” by larger carriers in the Gulf and elsewhere who appreciate the rapid experience pilots gain doing multiple take-offs and landings each day.

Flybe chief executive Christine Ourmieres-Widener has another idea: make cockpit and other aviation careers more attractive to half the world’s young people – females. Persuading more girls to study science, technology, engineering and maths subjects at school and university would help, she says. So too would breaking down some of the barriers – often unseen – to women progressing their careers in airlines. “If we get more women [into the industry], we might just solve the recruitment problem,” she notes.

Fellow European carrier EasyJet has been a strong proponent of encouraging women to become pilots. It has committed to raising from around 5% to 12% the proportion of its new pilots who are women in the next two years. Measures include talks to female audiences at schools and other youth organisations, offering 10 places a year for women on its pilot training programme, with the training loan of £100,000 ($134,000) underwritten by EasyJet. Once employed at the airline, EasyJet says it will give its female pilots mentoring support to ensure they take up leadership roles and training and management pilots.

A recruitment advert in Flight International 50 years ago for the BEA/BOAC cadet pilot training scheme stipulated that candidates had to be men, under 27 and unmarried. The world has moved on since then. Filling flightdecks is no longer about jobs for the boys, and a female voice from the cockpit welcoming passengers on board an airliner is no longer the novelty it was a few decades back. A significant change in the gender mix of new pilots entering the profession could be the biggest trend in pilot recruitment in a generation.

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