28.04.2011

Pilots Wanted: Everywhere

Many qualities are needed to succeed in business. You need commitment and enthusiasm, as well as financial expertise. You need to understand the practical realities of the industry in which you are operating. You need luck sometimes, courage often and good people around you all the time. You need to be diplomatic one moment and ruthless a moment later. The list goes on.

But perhaps the most important aspect of success in any business is the human factor. One might also argue that the human factor is the hardest part of business to control.

The risk of a global pilot shortage is a perfect case in point. Nobody knows quite what technological wonders the future holds for civil aviation, but for now at least we need pilots. And no matter what your strengths in business might be, you cannot create pilots from nowhere.

This February, the UK Ministry of Defence confirmed plans to make 25% of the RAF’s trainee pilots redundant. The news is a major concern for the future of UK aviation, because many military pilots eventually move to the commercial sector, including business jet charter operators. Who will train these abandoned, once-promising students now? Probably not the airlines. As Captain Mark Searle, chairman of the British Air Line Pilots’ Association (BALPA), says: “At one time, young people could enter the profession through airline sponsors, but now they have to fund their own initial training, which can cost up to £100,000.” Such a huge sum of money denies airline pilot training to all but the wealthiest people in society.

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) only issued about 15,000 private pilot certificates in 2010, down 64% on 1990. With a current student dropout rate of 70-80% contributing greatly to that decline, the US Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) now feels the need to run the ‘Flight Training Student Retention Initiative’, a long-term, industry-wide effort to help people in training see the process through and earn a certificate.

And whilst many Asian national economies – such as India and China – are expanding rapidly, the limited supply of indigenous pilots in those countries continues to slow the growth of business aviation.

The fundamental problem clearly exists across the aviation industry globally, but business jet charter operators face unique challenges. Our pilots are special types of people, needing qualities never required by commercial airliner pilots. When did an Airbus or Boeing pilot last carry your bags for you, talk you through the safety procedures or chat about good hotels at your destination? To be a business jet charter pilot requires a rare combination of charm, discretion, personal service and respect.

Furthermore, pilots are not the only problem. As the aviation industry focuses on the pilot shortage, we may be overlooking another crisis approaching fast. The number of maintenance engineers in aviation is declining too. Why? There are many reasons. The glamorous, exclusive image of aviation that existed throughout most of the 20th century is falling away, particularly as a result of the low-cost airline revolution. The automotive industry has been fast to exploit this opportunity, offering appealing packages – not least financially – to young engineers who no longer feel irresistibly drawn to the (fading) prestige of aviation. Furthermore, too many aviation maintenance and engineering courses are heavily classroom-based, leaving students who literally like getting their hands dirty becoming bored and disillusioned, dropping out without finishing their training.

As an industry, we cannot magically create pilots and engineers. But if we try harder to understand why experienced people are abandoning aviation, or why young people are being attracted to other sectors as soon as they leave full-time education, we ought to be able to take action in self-defence. We need to make aviation appealing again; we cannot complacently rely on the glamour of the past.

One final thought: is an old-fashioned gender bias holding our industry back? How much are we doing to encourage and support female pilots? Clare Walker, chair of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s ‘Women in Aviation and Aerospace Committee’, says: “Barely 3.5% of all pilots licensed to carry passengers are women [according to 2009 UK Civil Aviation Authority statistics]. This figure has only changed fractionally in the last decade or so. If you look at the percentage of women pilots in their 20s and compare the figure with the number of male pilots in their 20s, the picture is improving, but very slowly.” At LEA, we’re proud to say that almost 10% of our pilots are women, and we’re eager to raise that percentage.

Any operator faced with a pilot shortage crisis today will inevitably seek an immediate solution. The business must survive; tomorrow will have to wait. But at the same time, we all need to take responsibility for creating an industry that will attract and nurture pilots and engineers. The future of commercial aviation depends on it.

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