PilotsGlobal, a Wilmington, Delaware-based U.S. digital platform for pilots to find employment at airlines around the world, expects that the Middle East will face a new pilot shortage as early as 2023 due to the dearth of local candidates to help man the region’s massive airlines.
The firm predicts that the number of pilots required in the region will stand at approximately 15,800 by 2023 and around 28,000 by 2031, eventually climbing to the 54,000 estimated by Boeing in 2040.
Alone among regional carriers, Emirates, which employed almost 4,050 pilots as of October 3, and Qatar Airways, with almost 3,600, will need an additional 3,150 and 2,250 flight-deck crew, respectively, when the aircraft that comprise their order backlogs finally get delivered.
"We do also expect the actual numbers to be higher due to turnover rate not accounted for in Boeing's Current Market Outlook,” PilotsGlobal CEO Artem Sagan told AIN. “However, it is important to note that some of the aircraft deliverables will be for replacement purposes, thus not requiring additional crew.”
When it came to accelerated hiring, PilotsGlobal observed a trend of most Middle East-based airlines preferring ex-pat pilots with FAA and EASA licenses, he said. “Given the current recovery in the U.S. pilot recruitment market, where most of the carriers already restarted hiring again—while at the same time the European market remains depressed—EASA license holders are likely to be the ones to fill the demand when MENA's air carriers start hiring again at the previous scale,” he explained.
Given that most airlines in the region required ex-pat pilots to have accumulated more than 5,000 hours of flight time for vacant positions, PilotsGlobal believes it is well placed to fill cockpit seats when airlines begin to hire again.
“Most of the pilots using our platform have EASA and FAA licenses, with the majority having over 10,000 hours' flight time on the Boeing 777, 787, and Airbus A330, type ratings that are popular among flag carriers in the Middle East,” said Sagan. “We also have the flexibility to support low-cost carrier needs, including B737 and A320 type-rated pilots with significant flight time.”
PilotsGlobal launched its platform to marry the needs of international pilots and airlines in September 2021. “[W]e are the first platform to address this issue for both airline and business aviation market segments in equal measure,” Sagan added, noting that Qatar Executive, the business jet charter arm of Qatar Airways, resumed hiring Gulfstream pilots in recent months.
Middle East hiring trends would depend on the pace of recovery from the pandemic. “According to the latest ICAO report dated September 28, 2021, we are currently at minus 35 percent in terms of global seat capacity compared to pre-pandemic levels, while the Middle East is [down] 38 percent,” he said. "A lot will depend on how fast international traffic recovers. We expect full recovery to pre-Covid levels by early 2023. To support the seat capacity of pre-pandemic levels, airlines will have to operate at pre-pandemic fleet and flight crew numbers.”
PilotsGlobal already sees signs of increased numbers on the recruitment side.
“During the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Qatar Airways reduced their services significantly,” said Sagan. “They made one-third of their flight crew, or 1,300 pilots, redundant; then in February 2021, some redundant B787 pilots began to receive recall emails. In July, redundant A330 pilots began to receive recall emails. Currently, as of October 2021, Qatar Executive is recruiting Gulfstream captains.
By July 2021, Emirates had already brought back to service 169 out of its 263 airplanes and restarted accepting pilot applications, returning hundreds of pilots a month.
Because the UAE is a small country with not enough local candidates to support its fleet needs, its two massive airlines relied on the recruitment of foreign pilots. As for regional low-cost carriers, Air Arabia would need to triple its number of pilots by the time it receives all its aircraft on order, while FlyDubai would have to quadruple its current crew.
“Emirates will have to recruit almost the same number of pilots that they had pre-pandemic,” he noted. “They employed 4,000 pilots before coronavirus and will need an additional 3,200 when all of their aircraft deliverables are received and air traffic returns to projected numbers. Airlines such as Etihad, Flyadeal, Gulf Air, and Kuwait Airways are nearly doubling in size compared to 2019, requiring twice their crew. As of October 2021, Kuwait Airways is already recruiting A320 captains and first officers, and Flyadeal is recruiting type-rated ex-pat captains, with preference given to FAA and EASA license holders.”
The Middle East was open to all nationalities, he said, noting that pilot ranks include professionals from 52 different countries, the top three by numbers being British, Australian, and Canadian. Four out of five Qatar Airways pilots are foreign nationals as well. He further noted that Etihad also had a significant number of Malaysian pilots in its workforce.
Emirates Airline is the largest pilot employer in the region, closely followed by Qatar Airways. The next two on the list—Saudia and Etihad— employ about 2,200 and 1,400 pilots, respectively. FlyDubai is the largest low-cost carriers in the region, followed by Air Arabia and Flynas. PilotsGlobal expects FlyDubai and Air Arabia to at least double in size by 2031, while Flynas remains on a trajectory to double its pilot workforce during the same timeframe.
Emirates hired from all over the world, including the U.S., through roadshows. In recent years the situation has not changed, as the fleet has kept expanding, with the number of expatriates remaining at approximately 8.5 out of 10. Sagan referred to an earlier shortage as a pointer to the future.
“Emirates denies having had any pilot shortage before the pandemic, but the facts show that in April 2018 they flew 36 Boeing 777s and 10 A380s to Dubai World Central Airport, and left those planes there on the ground for months because there just weren’t enough pilots to fly them," he said. "The airline had to trim some flights and start hiring pilots from Etihad and other airlines to support its operational needs.”
Sagan said it was very early for a proposed new Saudi national airline to start the recruitment process. The airline would first need to incorporate, start working on the required operational licenses and make fleet arrangements before starting to recruit the flight crew.
“We are not yet aware of any movements in that direction for the time being,” he said. “However, we are aware of certain private employers currently recruiting for the Boeing 787 fleet in Riyadh and Jeddah, but whether or not it is related to a potential new national airline remains to be seen. “