Aviation training schools reexamine the bottom line

 - January 14, 2008, 5:18 AM

Flight schools must innovate to survive, since airlines are no longer able to sponsor tuition and a pilot career has lost its appeal amid headlines announcing furloughs, according to Oxford Aviation Training (OAT). The company said a UK pilot shortage within five years is a foregone conclusion, while elsewhere in Europe pilot demand “is expected to outstrip [training] capacity significantly starting in 2004.”

Since there is a lack of aspiring pilots, OAT plans to offer an airline-partnership program to “selected, self- funded and well trained” pilots, who will graduate from a professional pilot course, not one geared simply to obtaining a license. The move follows the acquisition of the former Oxford Air Training School two years ago by Signature Flight Support parent BBA Group, which has invested some £60 million ($95.4 million) to purchase new equipment, upgrade Oxford Airport and acquire Tyler International School of Aviation in Florida.

Managing director Anthony Petteford said UK traffic growth peaked in 2000 and 2001, before 9/11 accelerated the recession, affecting flight-training organizations (FTOs). “Loss of airline sponsorship precipitated a 25- to 30-percent drop in student numbers,” he noted. Petteford is encouraged by market predictions that inevitable economic cycles mean unconstrained demand–driven by lower fares, increased competition, development of regional airports and limited ground infrastructure–will propel UK passenger numbers from 181 million in 2000 to 277 million by 2010 and more than 400 million 10 years later.

A former airline pilot, route analyst and aviation training manager, he pointed out that with British low-fare operators planning to add 200 aircraft by 2007, some 400 pilots a year need to be recruited (assuming six crews per aircraft and delivery of two aircraft each month). In addition, British Airways needs to replace 200 retiring pilots a year and is “expected to restart recruitment next summer.” This means that a “pilot shortage is absolutely guaranteed. We are already starting to see demand move up,” said Petteford.

The FTO official cited several factors that have reduced the appeal of flying jobs–
increased automation; unstable career and “lifestyle”; social attitudes and “bus driver” image perceptions; closed cockpit doors; and competitive career alternatives in finance and information technology. “We cannot assume a large pool of people want to be pilots, [so] action and innovation are needed.”

Four different interest groups must cooperate to avoid a pilot shortage, observed Petteford–airlines, which cannot survive without crewmembers; regulators, who must do more to satisfy airline customers; government, which should change taxation policies on aviation fuel and training services; and FTOs, who must promote the profession, change methods to ensure provision of well qualified candidates and offer tailor-made courses. If flight schools guarantee a supply of “quality” students, then links might be made with banks to offer attractive training loans.

Petteford puts costs at £66,000 ($105,000) for initial training and £20,000 ($31,800) for type training. He hopes Oxford can arrange for 50-percent training loans. The costs exclude loss of earnings and other training expenses.

OAT’s airline-partnership program aims to identify no-risk students who will graduate as high-quality first officers and to offer carriers a 95-percent chance of success for selected trainees, according to pilot-training manager Mike Langley. It plans to offer 216 annual training places starting in March, with selection beginning this month. Officials suggested that Oxford is unusual in having a career-development officer to manage student selection, secure financial assistance, identify job opportunities and improve carrier liaison.

Petteford believes that the acquisition of Tyler, which will provide European students with their first 100 hours of tuition, enhances Oxford’s credibility since OAT will control the quality of training. (OAT students from other regions may not be trained in Florida, for security reasons.)

BBA’s investment includes $1.6 million for six new Piper PA-28 Arrows at Tyler to replace seven similar aircraft to be phased out at Oxford by 2004. Approved for European JAA training since May (and trading as “Oxford” since last November), Tyler has provided many new pilots to regional airline American Eagle.

A new turbine aircraft simulator is planned for introduction next year, alongside new IFR-equipped Piper PA-44 Seminole piston twins. The Oxford training fleet currently includes 19 Piper PA-34 Seneca piston twins, 19 Piper Warriors, seven Piper Arrows and four Schweizer 300 helicopters.