The right stuff?

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) has released a report stating that while airline pilot recruitment is looking positive for 2024, it now harbours concerns that the training industry may be experiencing capacity issues and could soon be struggling to meet demand.

Having previously warned new entrants to the industry that a surplus of experienced pilots laid off during the pandemic meant that new pilot graduates would struggle to gain their first airline jobs, the union has now revised its opinion and concedes that 2024 should be a buoyant year for low hours pilot employment, given that previously furloughed pilots have now rejoined the airline workforce and the experienced pilot employment pool is drying up.

BALPA now says that from 2024, for an unknown period, “we are likely to see a sustained reduction in the number of unemployed experienced pilots and an increased demand for newly qualified pilots.”

BALPA adds that it continues to remind aspiring pilots that while the outlook is positive, there are still risks to consider when entering flight training. Of particular concern, says BALPA, is that it believes that many pilot training providers are struggling to recruit and retain instructors and that “this is leading to significant delays and additional costs for aspiring airline pilots.”

To assist aspiring pilots in making informed choices on their training, the union has created a new portal on its website, named ‘Becoming a Pilot – The Inside Track’, detailing independent advice on what it takes to make it as a pilot.

Commenting just before the Christmas break, BALPA Interim General Secretary Miranda Rackley said: “BALPA is delighted to be able to revise its predictions to reflect the current trends. We are seeing increased recruitment and some opportunities for not only experienced crew but also newly qualified pilots and that is certainly good news.

“But we are aware of just how quickly a situation can change. BALPA prides itself on being a trusted voice in the industry and as such we must remind aspiring pilots of that market volatility and urge them to make sure they know the risks before embarking on training.

“BALPA’s nextGen campaign is designed to ensure we are looking after pilots right from the first steps in their career. We have a dedicated site with all our information about becoming a pilot available to all on our website and we are actively campaigning to protect trainee pilots from flight school collapses.”

BALPA adds that it is ‘delighted’ to see the launch of two fully funded airline backed cadet programmes from British Airways and TUI.

Commenting on the TUI MPL programme, BALPA says: “This long-awaited programme was welcomed and supported by BALPA as it removes the single biggest barrier to the profession – financial means. This is also the first time BALPA has been able to support an MPL (Multi crew Pilot Licence) programme, as with all previous MPL programmes the financial risk has been entirely placed on the trainee. With the funding structure that this new TUI programme offers, that financial risk is taken on by the airline and not the trainee.”

Referencing BA’s fully funded programme, BALPA says: “We were pleased to witness British Airways’ commitment to nurturing aspiring pilots right from the inception of their careers. Through the provision of a fully funded cadet scheme, the airline fosters the expansion of the talent pool, which, as in TUI, reaches beyond individuals solely reliant on personal financial means. This initiative serves to enhance diversity within an industry that has historically operated within a more confined sphere.”

Concerning the risk posed to those self-funding their training, BALPA says: “Entering flight training at any time comes with inherent risks, we will continue to educate the next generation of pilots and continue tackling those risks. Flight training organisations have not been immune to the financial pressures caused by Covid-19, not to mention the rising costs of energy.

Unfortunately, in 2023 we have seen several flight schools collapse whilst in possession of large sums of trainee’s money. This has understandably been hugely distressing for the trainee pilots who have been impacted by this. We continue to support our nextGen members with agreements with alternative training providers offering their support, access to the BALPA Benevolent Fund and the Pilot Advisory Group.

“In response to the collapse of several flight schools, we have launched a campaign to address two crucial concerns: to seek proper financial regulation of flight schools and secure a stable pilot training pipeline for the UK aviation industry.”

BALPA adds that due to the risk involved in embarking on a career as a professional pilot, many hopefuls seek out flight schools with close ties to airlines and the pilot union advises them not to base their decision on the promise of a job with an airline from a flight school.

“Whilst some schools may have close ties with or contacts within airlines, the only certainty of a job with a company is a signed contract from that company. All too often we see members choose a flight school based on a ‘gentleman’s promise’ of a job or a conditional offer of employment with a company, only for that offer to no longer be valid two years later at the end of their training.”

Returning to the union’s concerns over instructor shortages, BALPA is advising individuals to ask schools if they have adequate staffing levels to fulfil their new cadet intake: “Any shortage of flight instructors can create training delays leading to augmented costs for cadets, encompassing additional expenditures on
accommodation and miscellaneous items which can be amplified if part of your training takes place overseas.

“Furthermore, these delays may have ramifications on your entry into the job market because of potential increases to your training timeline. Consequently, BALPA strongly advises that you diligently peruse our instructions and proactively seek clarification through inquiries.

“If enrolling in an airline ‘tagged’, ‘sponsored’ or otherwise ‘affiliated’ course, we recommend that pilots seek independent legal advice from a contract lawyer prior to committing to the training course or parting with any money. Particular attention should be paid to any ‘conditions of employment’ section, with regards to the airline’s hiring needs upon competition of your training.”

As reported in the last edition of FTN, instructor shortages appear to be a growing issue in the flight training industry and it is increasingly becoming a core focus for flight schools. FTN spoke with Lee Woodward, CEO of Skyborne Airline Academy to find out what his school is doing to mitigate their instructor shortage.

Having potentially set a new benchmark for Flight Instructor (FI) pay, the academy – one of three UK schools providing integrated training programmes – is now offering packages worth up to £65k for multi engine/instrument rating (MEIR) instructors in a bid to both attract new instructors as well as encourage current FIs to remain in their roles and not decamp to airline pilot roles.

However, according to Woodward, pay is only part of the story and providing FIs with a work/lifestyle balance that suits individual requirements is as equally important. Woodward says flexibility is a key factor for FIs and that tailored work rosters can make a big difference in retaining staff.

The academy sets a base target of 600 hours flight instruction per year for its FIs (compared with 900 flight hour maximum for airline pilots). For those who want to maximise their workload, however, Skyborne allows FIs to increase this to 650 hours, which equates to an additional £10k flight pay earning potential on top of a base salary of £55k.

It is of course an expensive exercise in gaining all the requisite licences and ratings to become an advanced instructor and so a number of schools (both modular and integrated) are now also offering to upgrade basic FIs to advanced training roles at the school’s own cost, often training them inhouse.

Meantime, for aspiring pilots looking to commence their training with a flight school, Woodward says that due diligence is vitally important ahead of signing up to a training programme. While the practice of paying upfront for training programmes has become a hot topic following the collapse of two large flight schools last year, which resulted in dramatic losses for individual trainees, who are unlikely to get much if any of their investment back, Woodward advises that there are equally important considerations to bear in mind. In his view, subject to a school being in a fit financial state there is nothing wrong with reasonable advance payments upfront and it is perhaps more important to ask schools about other safeguarding measures, such as a school’s training capacity; their student selection process; how they monitor student training progress; and what refund policies are in place should a student fail to make the grade during their training.

As Woodward puts it: “You need to ensure that your flight school has ‘The Right Stuff’”. Some other flight school directors are meanwhile calling for tighter financial restraints on schools to prevent a repeat of last year’s issues which left students collectively £4m out of pocket.

Interviewed for a report on BBC’s Rip-Off Britain, which related the tale of one of Tayside Aviation cadet’s losses, training academy Aeros is calling for new industry-wide financial safeguards for students. Aeros Group Chairman Thomas Dunn MBE has announced that he is leading a campaign to safeguard future students against life changing losses by asking UK based ATOs to sign up to a code of conduct limiting them to a maximum prepayment of £5,000 per student.

The Aero’s initiative highlights a widespread view that the flight training industry needs to do more to protect their customers’ investments. The UK Civil Aviation Authority meantime continues to state that it holds no responsibility in overseeing the financial viability of ATOs, despite retained EU legislation apparently stating otherwise, as well as compelling arguments from industry experts asserting that financial viability and safety are intrinsically linked.

Industry observers believe that sooner or later the CAA will finally be compelled to react, either of its own volition or via government intervention. If it’s the latter, however, then the likelihood is that the flight training industry will need to wait until after the upcoming general election as there now appears to be a complete malaise at government and regulatory body level.

Author: FTN Editor

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