A race to the bottom?

Are pilots being selected on ability to fly, or ability to pay?

According to a BBC report, between 2011 and 2016, airline pilot salaries have increased at an average rate of 26%, putting them at number six in a list of the most inflation-proof careers. However, according to the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), entry to an airline pilot career is also at the top of a list of the most inaccessible careers, in terms of cost of training and available financial support. Not surprisingly, BALPA are now claiming that an airline career is now based more on an ability to pay for training than an ability to do the job.

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The cost of an integrated, full-time ‘one-stop’ ATPL training course is currently in the region of £100k. Banks will not offer unsecured personal loans at this level and so most often the only option open to those without £100k spare is to take out a loan secured against a property. School/college leavers, who form the majority of cadet pilots entering training, are frequently obliged to rely on the bank of mum and dad.

If an airline job on graduation is guaranteed then the risk of investing £100k is fairly low. However, according to research by FTN, less than 40% of those entering integrated flight training in the UK are enrolled on airline-specific training courses, meaning that the majority are ‘white tail’ cadets. These ‘white tail’ cadets are effectively taking a gamble on two fronts. The first is whether they will reach the required grade acceptable to airlines, and the second is whether airlines will be recruiting when they graduate.

Back in the early naughties, airlines were recruiting low hours pilots just about as fast as they could graduate. When the global financial recession hit in 2008, however, recruitment ceased almost overnight, as airlines shored themselves against a steep downturn in business. Today, airline pilot recruitment is almost back to 2008 levels and the majority of graduates are gaining employment soon after completing training, but at the same time airlines are offering little in the way of assistance to their future employees. While there are a small number of airline ‘mentored’ training programmes running in the UK, generally the only assistance they are providing cadet pilots is a conditional guarantee of employment on graduation. None are currently offering to pay their pilots’ training costs and only very few are acting as loan guarantors.

This has led to BALPA asking the airline industry and Government to financially assist the next generation of cadet pilots, and the Association has launched its nextGen project. BALPA’s Head of Membership and Career Services, Wendy Pursey, said:

“Unfortunately, many aspiring pilots who have worked hard to get top-notch A-level qualifications will fall by the wayside because they are unable to fund their training. We believe this financial burden has a real impact on pilots and has wider repercussions for the aviation industry.

Pilot contracts are changing and the big salaries associated with being a pilot are fast disappearing. There are some contracts out there for low-hours pilots which barely pay enough to live on, let alone cover the cost of training. Whilst we don’t want to put anyone off a pilot career, we must ensure our future pilot members are entering the industry with their eyes wide open.

We believe more needs to be done to ensure fresh talent is supported early in their career. That’s why BALPA launched its nextGen project to give trainees a voice and lobby the Government and airlines to do more to ensure recruitment is based on talent and not on who has the deepest pockets.”

Appeals to Government by industry associations to make student loans available to commercial pilot cadets, or to at least have VAT removed from flight training course fees, date back to the early 1980s. One of the most active of the original campaigners for airline student pilot recognition was the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators (GAPAN – now the Honourable Company Air Pilots) who, despite repeated attempts to get Government to address the issue, were unable to persuade ministers to act. Other champions to the cause fared equally poorly, despite dogged perseverance and well-reasoned arguments.

Eight years ago, Jane Desforges, mother of graduate pilot Olly Desforges (who now flies for Flybe), took it upon herself to launch a campaign aimed at getting proper student recognition for cadet pilots. Her one-woman crusade, called Fairplane.org, quickly drew support from industry, and with the assistance of her local MP David Laws and FTN contributor Lembit Opik, she managed to get her cause heard in December 2009 by then Minister for Skills and Innovation, David Lammy MP. But while David Lammy claimed keen support for social mobility and endorsed the initiative, the key barrier to achieving proper student recognition, he argued, was a lack of support from airlines.

“With no outside financial assistance forthcoming, I was forced to effectively give up the home I had worked so hard for so that my son could follow his dream,” Jane told FTN at the time.

With no solution in sight, industry made one final effort in September 2010, holding a conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s headquarters in London with various Government and airline officials invited to attend. Perhaps because of the timing of the event, which fell during a period when funding was being cut rather than increased in the educational sector, none of the MPs invited to conference actually attended. In fact, according to conference organisers, one MP refused to attend on the grounds that all commercial flight training was funded by airlines – a misconception that clearly demonstrated the mountain that had to be climbed.

It was following this conference, and the development of a new pilot apprenticeship steering committee, that the flying training industry finally started to make headway.

A year later, in December 2011, then Business Secretary Vince Cable announced a new £6m initiative to develop national training curriculums for airline pilots, lawyers, accountants and engineers. This was the final tranche of projects being supported by a £25m fund for Higher Apprenticeships and built on the 21 projects announced a year earlier. In an interview with the BBC at the time Mr Cable said the investment would help sectors tackle skills shortages and would also “help us break down the doors of professions that are not representative of the society in which we live.”

The resulting pilot apprenticeship scheme had one major flaw, however, in that no airlines were willing to get involved, and so the scheme morphed into an Honours Degree programme tagged onto flight training programmes in order to unlock access to Government loans and means-tested bursaries. More than 200 cadet pilots have since taken advantage of the programme, but as it does provide loans and bursaries to cover the whole cost of a training programme, there are still many potential pilots out there who are unable to pursue their dreams due to lack of available funds.

The flight training industry has meanwhile been pursuing its own methods of reducing the financial burden placed on cadet pilots, notably in marketing more sophisticated versions of the alternative to the integrated flight training path, known as the ‘modular’ route. Outside the historic airline-sponsored training programmes, which existed some forty years ago, the vast majority of cadet pilots used to train under the modular route. This route to the airlines has a number of advantages, the most significant of which is the cost, which is roughly half that paid by cadets enrolled on integrated training programmes. The other benefits include the ability to train at one’s own pace, as and when finances allow, and potentially greater exposure to ‘hands-on flying’ rather than simulated flying training, which airlines are concerned could be eroding the basic flying skills of fast-track integrated trained pilots.

The problem with the modular training route, however, is a perceived lack of standardisation. Trainee pilots forced to shop around for the cheapest modular training programmes, airlines have argued, may not have received as high a standard of instruction. If they have used multiple schools for their various licences and ratings, there is the concern that they will have been exposed to different standards of training at schools unknown to the airline. The reality is that many modular schools now offer what is effectively an integrated training programme in all but name, so a standard level of training is guaranteed. There are also a couple of new initiatives in the modular marketplace. The first is an alliance between a number of the larger modular schools in Europe, which offers a standard level of training provision across its schools. The second is the growth in graduate ‘finishing schools’, which provide pilots with additional airline-specific skills sets in order to better prepare them for interview and ‘real world’ airline operations.

Both the integrated and modular routes have their fans and detractors, but there are no hard statistics as to the relative merits of each in relation to employability.

Meanwhile BALPA’s nextGen programme has been established to help protect the profession by “reaching down to these new entrants and giving them a voice”.

“We offer free nextGen Associate Membership to trainee pilots to welcome them in to the pilot family and provide mentoring and support from experienced pilots,” BALPA’s manifesto states. “BALPA is striving for equal opportunity to ensure future pilots are drawn from all parts of society. We believe more needs to be done to get the Government and industry to foot some of the bill for training. We are asking the Government to look at ways it can support new pilots, including considering how the apprenticeship levy could help.

At the same time BALPA representatives are negotiating brakes on the erosion of new starters’ terms and conditions. BALPA is encouraging airlines to agree permanent contracts and move away from employing pilots through temporary work agencies or on zero hour contracts.

For the UK aviation industry to continue to thrive and remain a valuable input in to the UK economy, it needs a supply of highly trained pilots. BALPA is calling on airlines, regulators and the Government to ensure fresh talent is supported and that terms and conditions for new starters are not pushed in a downwards race to the bottom.”

Despite good intentions, a Government that claims to believe in equality of opportunity so far seems to have little interest in ensuring that the route to an airline pilot career in based on ability and aptitude, not the contents of the trainee’s wallet.

Author: Adrian Mahovics

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