It’s a conundrum bordering on a crisis for the global airline industry: More people are flying to more places, but the number of pilots is not keeping up.
“Airlines have had to go to greater lengths to recruit pilots,” said Nick Leontidis, group president of civil aviation training solutions at CAE, an aviation education company. “If it took a month to recruit 50 pilots, it takes six months now.”
Reports from airplane manufacturers, industry associations and pilot labor groups point to a confluence of events. Not only are more people traveling by air, but airlines now link an unprecedented number of cities — 20,000 worldwide as of 2018. Often those markets are served by smaller planes, not the jumbo jets of a decade ago that could carry 450 people or more, and that makes for more flights.
Demand for air travel is growing so quickly that 635,000 commercial pilots will be needed by 2037, according to a forecast produced by Boeing in 2018. The biggest need is in Asia, where an improving economy in China has resulted in more people traveling. More people are flying in the United States as well and, at the same time, pilots are hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65.
For aspiring airline pilots like 24-year-old Ahkeel Leach, who spent his childhood traveling between his father’s home in New York and his mother’s in Britain, the industry’s challenge is a career opportunity. Though he had wanted to fly since he was a child, he did not know where to study or how to pay for it.
“My family, we’re all immigrants. Aviation is one of those things you stick in the corner,” he said. “It’s a great job, but not everybody knows there are affordable avenues or has guidance to get there.”
Programs that give students like Leach flying lessons, the means to pay for them and the promise of a job after graduation are new in the United States. Recently, American Airlines and JetBlue became the first US-based carriers to offer what is called an “ab initio” training program. A Latin term for “from the beginning,” it means that airlines select people with an aptitude and personality for the cockpit and teach them everything else.
“Every day I’m so excited and happy to be here and happy for the fact that someone gave me a chance to achieve my dream,” Leach said from Mesa, Arizona, where he is enrolled at CAE’s American Airlines Cadet Academy. Large airlines like Japan Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines that used to train their own pilots are also now partnering with companies like CAE.
Leach recently received his private pilot’s license at the CAE training center, completing the first step on his way to flying for American. “Learning how to fly isn’t the hardest thing to do. I’m not doing surgery on people,” he said. “One of the hardest things is learning how to multitask and doing it at a high level.”
The idea that only certain people will excel in the cockpit is echoed by Lufthansa, based in Germany, which for decades has trained nearly all its pilots at its school at Phoenix Goodyear Airport.
About 10 percent of Lufthansa’s applicants have personality characteristics that indicate they will be successful at the airline, according to Viktor Oubaid, a psychologist at the German Aerospace Center’s Department of Aviation and Space Psychology, which selects cadets for Lufthansa.
“We don’t look only at cognitive and psychomotor skills, we also look at social competencies like leadership,” Oubaid said. “Can you work on a team under high-pressure conditions?”
Cathay Pacific, Singapore and Ethiopian also train young people in ab initio programs. By sponsoring the training or making arrangements for them to receive tuition loans, these carriers have eliminated one of the biggest hurdles — cost.
Referred to as pilot “selection by wallet size” in a 2018 position paper by the European Cockpit Association, training costs remain a troublesome issue in much of the world.
Before they opened their cadet schools, American and JetBlue partnered with financial institutions to provide loans of up to $90,000, which would cover training. The loans are gradually paid back once pilots are working.
“The cadet academy gets people right out of high school, with no job, no credit, and how do they get a loan in their name to go down this road?” said David Tatum, director of pilot recruiting and development for American.
“We believe there are people interested in this career who don’t have the means or don’t see the pathway or because it was a huge investment and there was no certainty in the end,” said Warren Christie, JetBlue’s senior vice president of Safety Security and Fleet Operations.
Because ab initio training gets applicants outside the traditional streams of military aviators and young people with economic backgrounds that allowed for private flying lessons, it is expected to draw from a larger pool of applicants.
Airlines are not the only entities getting into training. Airplane manufacturers are as well. So many new airplanes have been sold that the commercial fleet is expected to grow by a third, to 37,000 aircraft in the next decade, according to a CAE analysis. Airbus predicts that 36,500 passenger aircraft will be delivered by 2037. Every airplane in an airline’s fleet requires 10 to 16 pilots, and Boeing says investing in their training supports “the full life cycle of an aircraft.”
Airbus also started ab initio training in partnership with flight schools in Mexico and France and plans to train 200 pilot cadets each year.
Airlines hope that larger pool will include women, who now represent a tiny minority of pilots.
“The industry has not been able to attract females, so on a global basis it’s just 5 percent females in the cockpit,” said Jack Netskar, president of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots and a captain for SAS. “They have a job to do,” he said of those recruiting pilot cadets.
Olivia Mickevicius, 24, of Alexandria, Virginia, is one example. With a father who had flown helicopters in the military, she was interested in becoming a pilot and was working to raise the money for flying lessons when she learned about the cadet programs offered by JetBlue and American.
“I don’t think the field is very diverse yet,” she said. But between meetings with her American Airlines mentor, a female pilot who formerly worked with NASA, and other women from around the world who are also training in Mesa, Mickevicius was starting to understand the change of which she is a part.
“They need to bring women pilots into schools and show them the really cool things you can do,” she said. “In the future, I do want to go into the community and show girls that this is a viable career path.”
2019 New York Times News Service