Pilot shortage ahead, IATA plans to bolster numbers

 - June 9, 2008, 8:52 AM

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is taking steps to address the looming pilot and mechanic shortage facing airlines globally. IATA’s training and qualification initiative looked at manufacturers’ market outlook studies, which predict that 17,650 new passenger aircraft will be delivered by 2018, requiring more than 200,000 new pilots, or nearly 19,000 pilots a year.

Current global training programs can produce a maximum of 15,200 per year, leaving a shortfall of more than 3,000 pilots annually. While the study looks a decade into the future, airlines are already feeling the effects of the pilot shortage. According to Juergen Haacker, IATA’s director of operations, at least six airlines have begun delaying deliveries of new aircraft because they do not have enough pilots to crew them. “The issue is significantly different between the continents,” said Haacker. “The major problem is that [the economies of] what we consider the emerging markets–Asia, the Middle East, India–[are] growing faster than the average of the rest of the world, but traditionally they have little capacity for training.”

For most airlines in developing regions, foreign flight crews are a fact of doing business, but with the industry growth in these areas, air carriers are resorting to different means to attract enough pilots. “One Middle East airline has an advertisement out [targeting] North American regional airline pilots or general aviation pilots, offering a career path [that leads to] piloting an A380 in the Middle East,” said Haacker. “There is already competition for this resource.”

Another worrisome trend has emerged in some airlines’ practice of drastically reducing the amount of experience required to achieve captain status, Haacker said. Some airlines are trying to cut down the level of experience required for command by roughly 50 percent, he noted, “and we think that’s going too far. You cannot count on having an experienced crew with such a fresh captain.”

According to IATA, North America is not yet experiencing pilot shortages since the industry, in the midst of a consolidation, is not experiencing the same growth as other regions. Due to the recent shuttering of several regional airlines, there is a pool of experienced pilots available, but the concern in North America is with the mechanics, according to Haacker. “A study showed that more than 60 percent of the maintenance [workforce] in North America is older than 45, and I think a significant number of them are ready for retirement. If we do not find replacements as fast as possible, we will run into a serious shortage of mechanics in North America.”

International Training Standards Needed

IATA’s initiative aims to increase and improve the available aviation talent pools. One key element involves working with governments around the world to formulate laws standardizing training provider certification requirements to create more aviation training schools, especially in emerging markets. “We want to ensure that training philosophies globally are harmonized so we do not run into a problem where one state tries to cut down the number of required training hours or [experience] to increase the throughput [of candidates].”

While the association has produced a standard practices manual on recommended training procedures, IATA admits that global implementation has fallen short of the association’s expectations. Haacker hopes that organizations such as ICAO will adopt new simulator and training device specifications. The association’s goal is to have its best-practice suggestions integrated into national laws by 2010.

“You can have a problem when you recruit pilots from one training provider, trained on a certain technology of simulators, and their knowledge base is totally different from that of pilots coming from another training provider who used different simulator equipment,” he said. “That’s something that can cause trouble in your daily operations.”

In the meantime, the association is developing a survey on how to stabilize the number of candidates for pilot and mechanic positions without having to compromise on the quality or security needed. IATA plans to submit the survey to its constituents. “If the trend is for less experienced pilots and less trained mechanics to work on and operate airplanes that fly globally, there is inherent risk for everyone, not just the airline that is operating with these types of people,” he concluded.