Asia pilot gap grows as airlines order new jets
HONG KONG—Fast-growing Asian and Middle Eastern airlines that have signed orders for hundreds of new airplanes now must find enough pilots to fly them. For safety-conscious travelers, that means sticking with the big, well-known airlines who can afford to lure the best staff as the scramble to fill the cockpit intensifies.
Warnings have been raised for several years of a pilot shortage in Asia, but the latest orders add to the urgency. The region is forecast to account for the lion's share of global aircraft deliveries over the next two decades as demand for air travel surges amid strong economic growth. It's also forecast to need the largest number of new pilots and the widening shortage of experienced staff is raising safety concerns and playing havoc with flight schedules.
"Quite a number of carriers are increasing their orders. So where are the pilots coming from? The shortage is going to manifest itself certainly as we go into next year because there'll be a lot of planes coming in then, so these guys are going to have a hard time finding the pilots to fly them," said Shukor Yusof, an aviation analyst with Standard & Poor's.
Last month, Indonesia's Lion Air ordered 230 Boeing Co. 737s with options for 150 more. Qatar Airways ordered at least 55 jets from Airbus SAS while Emirates ordered 50 Boeing 777s. From 2011 to 2030, Boeing and Airbus both predict Asia will account for about a third of global aircraft deliveries worth a total of more than $1 trillion.
To keep up with growth and replace retiring pilots, the International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts Asia will need 229,676 pilots over the next two decades, up from 50,344 in 2010. In the most likely scenario, Asia will be short about 9,000 pilots a year because it will need about 14,000 but has capacity to train only about 5,000.
"Never in human history have we seen a time when 2 billion people will enter the middle class and demand air travel. That time is now," said William Voss, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Flight Safety Foundation.
Some airlines are already acting.
Emirates has announced plans to set up a dedicated $109 million flight training center in Dubai that will be able to train up to 400 students at a time. Earlier this year, Canadian flight-training company CAE Inc. said it was expanding its training center in Zhuhai, China that it runs jointly with China Southern Airlines.
But Roei Ganzarski, Boeing's chief customer officer for flight services, warns that recruiting pilots will be a long-term problem for the aviation industry. "We've already heard of a few airlines that have either reduced their operations or even grounded their airplanes because they don't have enough people to fly them."
Training a commercial airline pilot takes up to three or four years. Trainees must obtain a Private Pilot's License and then a Commercial Pilot's License. Then they need an Air Transport Pilot's License -- the advanced credential required to fly a commercial airliner -- which involves logging about 1,500 flying hours. It's an expensive and time-consuming process that rookies starting from scratch will need two to three years to complete.
Once they're hired by an airline as a first officer, candidates need more time for additional conversion training for the type of aircraft they'll be flying, which could take another year.
Aviation industry executives say small airlines will be hit hardest because they can't compete with big, rich carriers such as Dubai-based Emirates, the Middle East's biggest airline.
Capt. Alan Stealey, senior vice president for flight operations, said Emirates isn't facing problems recruiting its target of 600 pilots this year, up from about 400 or 450 in past years.
Emirates lures staff with generous salaries and benefits. First officers earn tax-free annual salaries averaging $95,000 while captains get about $135,000 as well as free housing, medical benefits and tuition.
Emirates also operates some of the world's newest, most advanced jets -- another draw for recruits.
"We're an airline of choice from a pilot's point of view," said Stealey. "The shortage will not be in carriers like Emirates," but rather will hit smaller, regional carriers hardest, he predicted.
The crash of an Air India Express jet in May 2010 highlighted the problems smaller airlines are facing. An investigation blamed the Serbian pilot for the disaster in which a Boeing 737 operated by the national carrier's low-cost arm crashed while landing at Mangalore's airport, killing 158 people.
The probe found that the pilot slept through more than half the flight and woke up disoriented when it was time to land the aircraft.
India's pilot shortage has been driven by fierce demand as a slew of carriers have started up in the past decade and expanded rapidly. Pilots complain that they don't have enough rest time between flights, a violation of international aviation safety practices.
Indian airlines have been forced to look abroad for staff, which comes with its own problems as some Eastern European pilots had difficulties with English -- the international language of aviation.
By hiring pilots from countries where English isn't spoken widely, "you have to accept that there's potential for confusion, or less comprehension," said Gideon Ewers, a spokesman for the U.K.-based International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations.
Airlines across Asia have been recruiting foreigners. China has at least 1,300 foreign flight captains, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper. Garuda Indonesia and Korean Airlines have also been forced to hire foreign pilots. In China, state media quoted an American pilot for Spring Airways complaining he had to rely on his Chinese first officer to communicate with air traffic controllers who wouldn't or couldn't speak English.
Experts say while some smaller airlines are forced to hire pilots on short-term contracts, they don't have as much control over the quality of the pilot's training and experience as big airlines with cadet programs do. The result is that while airlines may have crews that meet the minimum training requirements, some airlines will have crews that are excellent but others are "dangerously marginal," said Voss.
At airlines where safety and training standards are closely followed, the pilots in the cockpit "correct the missteps and correct problems on the spot. All of those little corrections eventually define the safety culture of that airline," said Voss.
"If the crews are all on six-month contracts, that doesn't happen. Risky behavior goes unchallenged, professionalism decays, and disaster inevitably follows."
A potentially even graver shortage looms of maintenance personnel, aviation groups say. Boeing forecasts that Asia will need a quarter-million new technicians over the next two decades, up from about 46,500 now.
"It is a more difficult problem to solve, since the job is very unattractive and harder to train," Voss said.
AP Business Writer Adam Schreck in Dubai, Aviation Writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels and AP writer Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.
Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman