Pilot Shortage Means Big Business for Flight Academies
Profound change is coming to the flight-training industry, prompted by new legislation in the U.S. and by the rapid growth of airline and business aviation in countries where aviation is finally gaining a stronger foothold. The changes are underscored by what many predict will be a shortage of pilots, thanks to fewer new pilot entrants, large numbers of retirements and lack of general aviation infrastructure in emerging countries such as India and China.
“The signs of a global pilot shortage are mounting as airlines expand their fleets and flight schedules to meet surging demand in emerging markets,” Boeing wrote in its long-term market outlook. “Asian airlines in particular are experiencing delays and operational interruptions due to pilot scheduling constraints.” According to Boeing, during the next 20 years, Asia-Pacific demand will reach 183,200 pilots, with China accounting for 72,700. “Europe will need 92,500 pilots; North America, 82,800; Latin America, 41,200; the Middle East, 36,600; Africa 14,300; and the CIS 9,900.”
The question now is where will all these new pilots be trained?
Jason Blair, executive director of the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI), and NAFI member Jonathon Freye, have written a white paper addressing how the pilot training industry in the U.S. is about to change dramatically because of legislation mandating that airline pilots have at least 1,500 hours and an airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate. That legislation is headed toward becoming a regulation, with the recent release of an FAA notice of proposed rulemaking . Essentially, airline captains and first officers would both have to carry an ATP. The ATP requires at least 1,500 hours of flight time. (Oddly, the U.S. legislation comes at a time when non-U.S. airlines have adopted the lower minimum flight hour standards allowed under ICAO’s multicrew pilot licensing scheme, which requires only 240 hours of flight time.)
What concerns Blair and Freye is that the sudden jump in mandatory minimum experience requirements from a commercial pilot certificate and 250 hours of flight time to an ATP and 1,500 hours will severely constrain the airline industry and lead to even greater hiring of new pilots from the ranks of flight instructors. Another consequence of the new U.S. Part 121 airline requirements will be the staggering cost of gaining the required 1,500 hours. While commercial pilots can add hours to their logbooks by flying for charter operators, most pilots gain experience by teaching new pilots. The problem then becomes who will teach the new pilots if all the instructors have been sucked up by airlines?
“In light of new rulemaking,” they wrote in the white paper, “it is unlikely that the flight training industry will be able to offer a continuous supply of qualified pilots to meet the demands of commercial carriers. The industry should not look to the flight instruction community as the training ground for its Part 121 pilots. There will not be enough positions available to meet the experience needs, and it is not a productive approach to the provision of quality flight instruction.”
Blair and Freye published some interesting statistics about the pilot population in the U.S. Pilot certificates issued in the U.S. have declined to 93,861 in 2009 from 156,955 in 1990. But the commercial/ATP numbers are far lower. In 1990, 15,500 commercial and 8,437 ATP certificates were issued. Those numbers dropped to 11,350 commercial and only 3,113 ATP certificates in 2009. Remember Boeing’s outlook, which sees a need for 4,140 new airline pilots per year just in the U.S. during the next 20 years. The Boeing numbers don’t include general aviation pilots flying corporate and charter aircraft, flight instructors and other types of working pilots.
More worrisome perhaps is the small number of active certified flight instructors (CFIs), according to Blair and Freye. To measure whether flight instructors are active, they compared the total number of CFIs in the U.S. to the number of CFIs that have endorsed a pilot for a checkride in the previous five years. Their conclusion: only 13.8 percent of the 96,473 CFIs in the U.S. are actively teaching. And the ranks of new CFIs keep declining; just 4,348 were added in 2009, down from a high of 8,164 in 1991.
“There is no feasible way given the current status of the flight training industry, and industry standard training model, to continuously supply qualified pilots for the demand of air carriers,” the white paper concluded. “There is no single solution to the predicted pilot shortage. The airlines, the FAA, and the flight training industry acknowledge the problem, but policymakers continue to ignore it. Even the FAA has acknowledged the need for ‘creative approaches to pilot training.’ Interim solutions may necessarily encompass reductions in service to match a sustainable level of qualified airmen; finding service alternatives if domestic carriers cannot provide a level compatible with demand; and developing a training process that, [while] cost effective and [possibly different] from current proposals, also meets the skill level and competency required of the airline environment. None of these solutions includes leaving the system as it is currently. If forecasts about the pilot shortage come to fruition while licensure rates continue to decline, change will be inevitable for the flight training industry.”
If anything, the coming pilot shortage is good news for flight academies, companies that specialize in pilot training, many of which are associated with colleges and universities. Major training providers such as FlightSafety International and CAE also operate flight academies–FlightSafety has one facility in Vero Beach, Fla., and CAE has 11 academies around the world–and the number of academies in countries with emerging aviation industries seems to be growing. But until these countries figure out that they need to allow average citizens to learn to fly in unencumbered airspace and in an environment that promotes the growth of general aviation infrastructure, the worldwide shortage of pilots will not abate.
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