Business is buoyant in the commercial flight training sector, with new flight training schools entering the market in both the UK and mainland Europe.
The recent influx of new schools will add to the overall training capacity, but even when taking these into account, industry experts are warning that airline pilot demand is outstripping supply and there is no quick solution to bring it back into balance.
The industry’s most quoted market forecast, compiled each year by planemaker Boeing, states that Europe alone requires 7,300 new pilots each year in order to keep pace with airline growth.
EU commercial flight schools meanwhile have a current training capacity estimated to be just over half that number, leading to concerns over workforce shortages, as evidenced by some regional airlines having to cancel flights this year due to a lack of flight crew.
Exact figures of the number of pilots graduating from commercial flight training courses at European schools are hard to find. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) doesn’t keep a tally, and its Member States’ National Aviation Authorities (NAAs) are often reluctant or unable to disclose their figures.
UK flight training company FTA Global has conducted what is probably the most accurate analysis to date and estimates that around 4,000 pilots graduate in the EU each year.
A percentage of these graduates, perhaps as much as 30%, are seeking jobs with airlines outside of Europe, so the actual number of graduates looking for employment within the EU is likely less than 3,000.
New schools entering the market might add a further 750-1,000 to this figure, but this still leaves industry output a long way short of forecasted demand.
Most of Europe’s largest commercial flight schools appear to be operating at capacity at the moment. Frik Schoombee, business director at FTEJerez, one of Europe’s busiest and longest established Approved Training Organisations (ATOs), agrees that the flight training industry is facing capacity issues:
“It is common knowledge that many of the leading pilot training institutions in Europe are currently battling to meet the unwavering high demand for cadet pilot training of the past year or more.”
“At FTE we were fortunate to recognise the signs of an increasingly high demand for cadet pilot training at an early stage – a clear pattern where most of our traditional airline partners each year indicated a higher demand for training slots than what they normally require. In some recent cases it was more than double the average requirement for the past few years,”
According to Frik Schoombee, FTEJerez’s order book is now full for 2019 and most of 2020, a healthy position for any business to be in but one that clearly demonstrates the capacity issues that the industry is facing.
L3 Airline Academy, headquartered in Southampton, UK, is equally busy, although they are working on increasing their capacity by opening new training centres in Europe.
L3 Marketing Communications Manager Richard Wolfe told FTN: “As demand for new pilots continues to grow at such a fast pace, the industry is trying to catch up and that is of course creating challenges. These problems are being experienced both in Europe and across the world.
The industry, including L3, has been heavily investing in improving its capacity to help meet the challenges and limit the shortfall. In the last year alone, we opened the European Airline Academy in Portugal and have increased facilities, aircraft and instructors at all of our other Airline Academy sites.
Next year we’ll be opening the Qantas Flight Academy in Australia and the L3 London Training Centre by Gatwick Airport.”
One of the knock-on effects of increased airline pilot demand is an inevitable draining of the instructor workforce, and it is this, perhaps more than any other factor, which ultimately dictates training capacity.
As has always been the case, a significant proportion of the instructor workforce work as instructors in order to build hours and experience ahead of joining the airlines. This means that when airlines start recruiting new pilots in earnest, instructors start disappearing from schools as they take up jobs as first officers for the airlines that they were previously instructing for. Retention of instructors by schools is therefore a significant challenge.
“Periods of high demand for training naturally equates to high demand not only for graduates, but also for flight instructors, many of whom are in any case only seeing flight instruction as a temporary position whilst pursuing airline employment,” agrees Frik Schoombee. “The result of the ‘hiring frenzy’ of the past number of months was that many pilot training establishments all of a sudden experienced a high outflow of flight instructors to the airlines – thus finding themselves in a situation of a drastically increased commitment but with a seriously hampered ability to deliver.”So what can be done to retain instructors?
“The ideal situation would be if airlines could identify/assess cadets and train them with a partner ATO with an agreement that they instruct at the ATO for x number of years, after which they would have priority placement with the airline. In reality, however, this will only work if airlines are prepared to make a substantial contribution towards the cost of that cadet pilots’ training. Otherwise, if self-sponsored, the young graduate will go straight for an airline position – not only because of earning more money but also the need to start earning money to pay off huge training debts.”
The idea of airlines placing graduates as instructors with ATOs isn’t new. In the late 1990s, Dutch airline KLM partnered with UK training school Cabair on a project to place its newly-graduated first officers as instructors with the school for two years after graduation, in order to train the next intake of KLM pilots. The project seemed to work well but has only since been repeated in a limited capacity, such as Loganair’s tie-in with Scottish ATO Tayside Aviation.
Frik Schoombee told FTN that there is merit in these type of partnerships, but they could be difficult to launch in the current environment: “In past years with a much lower demand for pilots, schemes such as the Cabair/KLM agreement or the Tayside/Loganair ones worked fine because airline positions were hard to come by and young graduates saw that as a stepping-stone to the airline.”
The reality today is that self-sponsoring cadet pilots have a choice of airline jobs – often even way before completing their training. The only solution here seems to be a mindset change by the airlines. By assisting young wannabe pilots through an airline/ATO/flight instructor scheme, airlines will ensure a steady flow of first officers with some flight training experience that could also greatly benefit them in their future airline careers. A scheme like that would really be a win-win scenario: airlines ensure that they meet their demand for new pilots; they get their money back through salary sacrifice; and gifted young aspiring pilots that otherwise never would have had the financial means to become a pilot, would now have the opportunity.”
“The industry certainly has to think of different solutions to how we can recruit and train more flight instructors”
L3’s Richard Wolfe agrees that the instructor workforce is a key consideration and believes that schools perhaps need to make instructor careers more inviting in order to grow the workforce:
“The industry certainly has to think of different solutions to how we can recruit and train more flight instructors. At L3 we currently have sponsored flight instructor opportunities to support more people to join the career. We are also offering excellent employment packages to attract and retain a talented instructor workforce and have introduced new initiatives to provide greater flexibility, such as our ‘commuter package’, to suit a wider range of people’s circumstances. We’ll also be announcing more exciting activity in this area shortly.”
One factor that is playing a growing part in alleviating the training capacity issue is the move away from traditional Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) training programmes, which rely heavily on single and twin-engine piston flying training, towards Multi-Crew Pilot Licence (MPL) training programmes, which make greater use of flight simulator training devices.
“At FTE approximately 50% of all airline sponsored or mentored training is now MPL. With a significantly lower number of training hours done on single and twin light aircraft, this naturally frees up capacity on the flight instructor side, although this does increase demand for simulator instructors, but these are not as problematic to recruit and retain as flight instructors,”
The UK is Europe’s largest flight training provider, graduating more than a quarter of the EU’s total number of commercial pilots, which is roughly the same number as the next two busiest countries combined, France and Germany. At the recent Pilot Careers Live event at Heathrow, now a two-day event to cater for increased interest, 49 Approved Training Organisations (ATO) were present, showcasing their training programmes to prospective students. As well as new ATO exhibitors from mainland Europe and further afield, two new UK flight training schools took stands for the first time.
The first was Skyborne Airline Academy, which has set-up business at Gloucestershire Airport. The new school is providing a suite of training programmes, including both integrated and modular training routes to the airlines. The school’s chief executives are Lee Woodward and Ian Cooper, both of whom were ex airline pilots before moving into the flight training industry where they have been senior managers with some of Europe’s largest ATOs.
The second new UK school is setting up business at Oxford Airport. Headed by Andy McFarlane, ex Centre Manager at CAE Oxford Aviation Academy, the new ATO has yet to commence operating, but promises new and innovative training programmes designed to graduate airline-ready pilots.
As Europe’s largest provider of airline pilots, the UK continues to be the flight training industry’s market leader and the recent influx of new schools is a clear indicator that the marketplace is buoyant.
However, industry experts are warning that the apparent indifference that airlines are demonstrating towards the training of their future pilots is untenable, and without greater airline participation, both in terms of financial support and instructor supply, then the flight training industry will continue to struggle to meet demand, and the number of grounded flights due to lack of flight crew will continue to grow.