Training Business Adapts To Downturn

 - June 8, 2009, 7:11 AM

As part of the launch of its “new reality” simulator and services portfolio, Thales assembled a high-level panel of simulation and training industry professionals to discuss the challenges facing their industry as a result of falling margins, increasing overhead and more aggressive competition.

Mike Humphreys, director operations and support with Oxford Aviation Academy, which has 42 simulators at its eight training centers, said activity across his business has fallen around 10 percent. But he took a relatively sanguine view of the way forward, commenting that: “Transitions such as new entrants and fleet changes drive demand, so we’re already seeing lower volumes. But the industry has been through this before. If we conserve cash and do the right things we’ll still be there when the upturn comes.”

In the meantime, though, there are concerns that lack of investment during the downturn will mean a shortage of pilots when demand returns.

Air Malta, for example, advocates the sponsorship of cadets, with pilots repaying the cost of their training out of their salary over 10 years. “After 10 years they have families, so they are inclined to stick around,” said Lawrence Gatt, the carrier’s manager technical and projects. “Some move to Emirates or whatever, but a lot of them stay.” Virgin Atlantic Airways has a different model. “We used to recruit from the military, mainly,” said Dave Kistruck, the airline’s general manager of flight operations. “But that pool has shrunk so now we steal a lot from other airlines.”

The traditional Virgin pilot joins at age 32 to 34 and leaves at 65, he said. “We have a very low attrition rate. They want to fly the big planes until they retire, so there’s no shortage of pilots,” he said. And he does not believe airlines should pay for pilot training. “We’re like a magnet at the end of the tube to enthuse them to take out £100,000 loans,” he commented.

That approach spells problems for smaller airlines, however. “When demand comes back, the smaller airlines will be the supply for pilots,” said Alteon Training president Sherry Carbary. “But when the cycle turns and we need pilots, nobody’s been investing in training them.” The result will be that Kistruck’s Virgin Atlantic operation, for example, has what it needs, “but the smaller airlines and the airlines in the developing world do not have the pilots,” he said.

Dieter Harms, the former chief executive of Lufthansa Flight Training who helped develop the multi-crew pilot license with those smaller operators in mind, sees the current downturn as “a wonderful opportunity to use existing capacity and adapt our approach. You don’t need a full flight simulator for every phase of training.”