An Update to Opportunity in Crisis: The Flight Academy of the Future by Capt. John Bent, FRAeS, initially published in June 2020.

Humanity is used to international travel, which will bounce back, probably with differences, as the pandemic is forcing a paradigm shift to new air transport modes and processes now under rapid development.

Pre-pandemic, there was a looming pilot shortage, and the various forecasts for a return to 2019-level airline activity seem to settle around 2024-25.

Many airlines are receiving survival support from governments due to their role as critical infrastructure contributing 4% to global GDP, but those that survive will be heavily in debt, and disruption will likely continue for some time with airline closures and new start-ups appearing. 

This leads to higher demands on pilot training, which will need to be even more relevant and effective. Add to this these factors:

  • That the huge concentration of pilot experience at the most senior airline levels is being decimated, generating more concerns about how to try to mitigate this with training.
  • Seen as non-core activity, Approved Training Organisations (ATOs) that supply airlines with new pilots will receive no survival support; and many airlines have stopped ATO supply, not seeing this as a current issue due to the apparent surplus of furloughed pilots.
  • Many ATOs lost international students through border closures, and a number have closed or are at the point of closure.
  • The airline industry seems to be banking on the return of furloughed or redundant pilots, with current evidence suggesting that a significant number will not return.

When the resurgence of commercial aviation arrives, and the supply of furloughed pilots is exhausted, the reduced number of ATOs still in operation will be unlikely to address the demand. For those still in operation, there will be a 14-24 month lead time to graduate supply. 

Moreover, it is probable that airline piloting careers will not offer pre-Covid levels of remuneration, attracting fewer young people into flight decks of the future.

There are projections that approximately 60,000 additional professional pilots will be required to staff the advanced urban mobility sector (electric and hybrid aircraft) now in development.

So the eventual resurgence of the industry, rapid or slow, will demand a level of pilot supply which could become exhausted more rapidly than many realise. Some airlines do recognize this and are paying reduced salaries to their furloughed pilots to keep them on their books and guarantee immediate availability in the coming surge.

New (replacement) ATOs have to launch now to fill the eventual demand gap, and a parallel opportunity exists in the pandemic downtime to lift the traditional professional pilot training process to much-needed new levels of relevance, quality, and efficiency; regulators will be critical to success. The massive disruption to this industry could have significant safety outcomes.

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