Commercial, private airlines compete for dwindling pool of pilots

Discussion of the looming pilot crisis is not new, but we are beginning to see just how damaging it will be for all sectors of aviation around the globe. Higher standards pit private and business aviation against commercial airlines, all competing for a dwindling pool of qualified pilots, writes, WOLE SHADARE

Danger foretold

The pilot shortage has its roots long before COVID-19. Industry leaders saw it coming more than three years ago — before the pandemic — as the global airline industry predicted a record number of passengers and the need for more planes and pilots over the next 20 years. Then, came the pandemic. Amid lockdowns around the world, airlines parked hundreds of planes. And the major U.S. airlines, Europe, and other countries received massive amounts of federal aid — with the express restriction that they had to fly their schedule, and could not furlough or lay off any employees. The Nigerian government equally helped the carriers with over N5 billion to cushion their losses and help them defray some expenses.

Heightened demand

The demand for pilots heightened after recovery from the pandemic and air traffic nears its pre-covid period of 2019. Airline traffic started to return in 2021 — mostly leisure travelers. And airline schedulers took the increase in traffic to presume everyone suddenly wanted to take a flight, in many cases to a new destination.

It comes at a time when demand for new pilots is expected to rise dramatically over the next two decades as a result of new aircraft entering the global fleet.

But as air travel demand continues to recover in 2023, the most recent forecast now projects that demand for pilots will outstrip supply in most regions globally between 2022 and 2024 — and continue to worsen over the next decade.

Boeing, Airbus raise concern

Aircraft giant, Boeing had raised concern over the dearth of pilots, technicians, and cabin brew as the plane maker. In its 2022-2041 Pilot and Technician Outlook (PTO) said Africa was set to need 20,000 pilots, 21,000 technicians, and 26,000 cabin crew.

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According to the PTO, Africa is set to need 20,000 pilots, 21,000 technicians, and 26,000 cabin crew. Meanwhile, China will require 126,000 pilots, 124,000 technicians, and 162,000 cabin crew.

The European market demand for pilots is estimated to reach 122,000, 120,000 technicians, and 207,000 cabin crew, while the Latin American market will need 35,000 pilots, 35,000 technicians, and 48,000 cabin crew.

For the Middle East, 53,000 pilots, 50,000 technicians, and 99,000 cabin crew will be needed compared to 128,000; 134,000, and 173,000 respectively in North America and 22,000, 24,000, and 38,000 in Northeast Asia.

Furthermore, Oceania will require 9,000 pilots, 10,000 technicians, and 18,000 crew members, compared to 37,000, 34,000, and 43,000 in South Asia and 50,000 pilots, 58,000 technicians, and 85,000 crew in South-East Asia.

Skilled manpower shortage

In Nigeria, the scarcity of skilled manpower to replace the aging workforce is putting the country’s aviation industry on the edge as the Nigerian College of Aviation Technology, Zaria trains professionals yearly without companies to engage them for their services. But things are turning out differently now for the institution and the country for the best.

Hiring pilots isn’t a quick fix. You can’t just hire someone, have them kick the tires, and sit in the left seat. Prospective pilots generally need to be trained in any of the aviation training institutions in Nigeria or anywhere else in the world.

Becoming certified as a commercial pilot by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires 250 total flight hours — but individual airlines might require 1,000 or 2,000 hours, the FAA says.

As a result of the shortage, Nigerian carriers now employ pilots and engineers from other nationals who dominate the cockpits of many aircraft. The irony is that while there are over a thousand Nigerian pilots that are out of job, many airline operators found it extremely difficult to engage them but would rather spend five times to hire expatriate pilots.

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Changing trend

The trend is changing now as there are many young Nigerians who man the cockpits of many Nigerian commercial pilots; a situation that helped to reduce capital flights out of the country and overall, helping to create jobs for many teeming aviation professionals.

Nigerian pilots are said to be amongst the best in the world and far understand the terrain better. Again, because of the boom in domestic aviation and General Aviation (GA), many operators are looking inward just as the boom in traffic and air travel has made them continually engage in the services of pilots.

The shortage of pilots can be likened to fewer pilots that are willing to commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to their training and education for a career with such a limited return on investment in what has historically been a very unstable industry.

Steps taken by some regional carriers include boosting compensation, such as offering a bonus to qualified pilots $80,000 spread out over four years.

Incentives

Companies are also granting bonuses of $500, $1,000, or $1,500 for pilot referrals. “An airline that wants to be able to recruit new pilots and to retain its current pilots needs to offer reasonable compensation, fair work-life balance, and some career path with stability,” said a pilot who preferred anonymity.

Faced with the dearth of pilots, many big airlines in Asia, Europe, and America are looking out for experienced pilots to poach to stem the shortage that has hit them as a result of their expansion as they acquire more wide-body airplanes.

Air traffic over China is set to almost quadruple in the next two decades, making it the world’s busiest market, according to Airbus Group SE.

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Start-up carriers barely known abroad are paying about 50 percent over what some senior captains earn at Delta Air Lines and they’re giving recruiters from the US to New Zealand free rein to fill their captains’ chairs.

Greener pastures

Many Nigerian pilots are looking beyond the country for greener pastures, as there are indications that China and other wealthy nations are poaching some pilots that have been thrown out of jobs. Chinese airlines need to hire almost 100 pilots a week for the next 20 years to meet skyrocketing travel demand.

Facing a shortage of candidates at home, carriers are dangling lucrative pay packages at foreigners with cockpit experience, and Nigerian pilots are billed to benefit.

Also on the negotiating table are: signing bonuses, overtime pay, and contract-completion payouts. Earlier this year, Ross saw the monthly paycheck of a pilot at Beijing Capital Airlines who earns $80,000.

“I looked at that and thought: ‘Man, I’m in the wrong line of business,’” Ross said from Vienna, where he was interviewing candidates for Chengdu Airlines. “They can live like kings.” Nigerian pilots with experience and considerable flying hours may benefit.

Already, some of them have started dusting their licences for possible recruitment into China’s aviation industry while others have applied for job placement. Over 600 Nigerian pilots are said to be out of jobs.

Last line

A number of dynamics have occurred on the commercial side, and a number of social and economic issues have occurred over the past 30 years, including the demographics of society, including aging. Almost 50% of the pilots flying today — are about to retire. And over the next 20 years, [commercial] passengers are going to double.

Wole Shadare