The world is running out of experienced pilots. Supply is not keeping up with the growing demand for air travel. The reason airlines and other operators are in this predicament stems from the rupturing of the training pipelines that historically supplied pilots across all levels of the aviation industry.
Experience is everything in aviation major carriers worldwide have mostly employed pilots with high levels of flying experience. Pilots gained that experience flying for regional airlines, charter operators and, critically as instructors at flight training schools.
As pilots gained experience and progressed to more lucrative flying positions, newly qualified pilots were employed to replace them. Together with a trickle of ex-military pilots topping up the airlines, the whole system had sat more or less in equilibrium.
This equilibrium has been at tipping point for some time almost a decade ago it was predicted the training system would fail without urgent remedial action. Some measures were put in place, but not enough most of the weaknesses went uncorrected. It was only because of the Global Financial Crisis, which suppressed global demand for air travel, that crisis was delayed.
A leading indicator of system failure is a dearth of available experienced instructors, as flying school instructors move into airline employment. Without these instructors, flight schools struggle to train new pilots to feed the industry from the bottom up.
In South Africa as in other countries there is no mechanism to maintain this vital pool of flight instructors. There are no formalised career pathways and minimal financial support to those looking to teach others to fly. Airline training schemes, although needed, won’t remedy the problem if its pilots all go straight into the airline’s employ.
In the US the system is somewhat different. Despite substantial evidence to show that airline cadetship programs posed no negative impact to flight safety, in 2013 the US Federal Aviation Administration chose to stipulate a substantial minimum level of experience a pilot must have to be employed by a major airline. While this has exacerbated the pilot shortage issue for American airlines, it has also forced the industry to create formal pathways to train new pilots and help freshly qualified commercial pilots progress to an airline career, such pathways often include a period of employment as a flying instructor.
Government also has a role to play, as noted by the expert panel charged with recommending strategies for a sustainable and successful aviation training sector in Australia. A key issue is education funding, the cost to become a commercial pilot is comparable to that of becoming a doctor or a veterinarian. A qualified commercial pilot with a flight-instructor rating will pay well over R1,5 million in training fees. But unlike those doing medicine or veterinary science courses, trainee pilots have never been adequately assisted by student subsidy and loan schemes such as NSFAS.
This effectively means students wanting to undertake a flight training needs to self-fund or attempt to get a student loan from a banks, which is not easy for a young person that has a passion for flying and not much else. Many talented potential pilots will not be able to pursue the career they dream of.
Looking further into the future, we must find more ways to maintain the pilot training pipeline. Encouraging more female students to pursue the career would be a start, the numbers now are woefully low.
Finally, the entire process of pilot training needs to be made more effective and efficient. Practices have remained essentially unchanged since flight training began.
Our future training systems must make pragmatic use of learning technologies and theory to enhance student progression, reduce failure and maximise the use of expensive aircraft resources. This requires investment.
In Canada, the training and simulation giant CAE, in partnership with the national and Quebec governments, is investing C$1 billion over the next five years to develop the next generation of aviation training systems.
In South Africa we need to recognise this opportunity for innovation and act now, and start supporting young pilots to reach their potential by offering bursaries to deserving candidates that show the required skills and importantly passion.