Mario Pierobon pulsed industry experts on the pilot demand and supply trade-off, the state of airline-funded programmes, how pilots who have lost their jobs are handling the situation, and the future of training technology for when the airline industry recovers.

One important issue to address in the post-Covid world is the trade-off in the demand and supply of pilots. Some sectors of the aviation industry have flourished during the pandemic.

“Corporate and business jet travel, management and training have all done very well, and new technologies such as electric aircraft and drone operations have seen accelerated development,” said Lee Woodward, Chief Executive Officer of Skyborne Airline Academy.

The question of pilot demand and supply is indeed dynamic. “Just prior to Covid, the industry was experiencing unprecedented shortages in pilot supply, and now it is experiencing oversupply in some regions. However, I believe this will be relatively short-term and our industry will once again experience pilot shortages,” said Woodward.

“From the perspective of the airlines of the Lufthansa Group, we see no increasing demand or even surplus in the near future since the number of active pilots is higher than the route volume on which they can be deployed now and in the foreseeable future,” said a spokesperson for Lufthansa Aviation Training (LAT).

According to Peter Hogston, Head of Airline Training at L3Harris, there are multiple different forecasts on the subject of pilot demand and supply trade-off. “Although this could be subject to change depending on the speed out of the global pandemic, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been predicting a return to 2019 levels by 2023,” he said. “Forecasts analysing aircraft order books, and considering expected pilot retirements, suggest that we will need another 219,000 new pilots internationally over the next 10 years. New and existing pilots will need training to help airlines meet this demand.”

The situation is also particularly dependent on the regional sector, according to Woodward. “Countries like the USA, China, India, and parts of Africa appear to be recovering more quickly than Australasia, South America and Europe. Within those regions, corporate jet travel is seeing record levels, and low-cost airlines are likely to lead recovery ahead of legacy carriers.”

Airline-Funded Training?

Generally, training costs are the responsibility of the trainee, particularly for ab initio pilots. “However, a number of airlines do offer some form of support for type rating, with solutions constantly being delivered to offer cost-effective training for the trainee,” said Hogston.

Pre-pandemic, the industry had witnessed the flourishing of multiple airline-funded pilot training programmes. In the current economic downturn, most of these programmes have skidded to a halt. Woodward argues these airline programmes are not ‘fully funded’ in the way previous ‘sponsored’ programmes once were. “Some airlines provide support in the form of bursaries and stipends, and some seek to support or underwrite loan facilities,” he said. “At Skyborne Airline Academy, we have significant experience in this space from previous airline programmes and are actively engaged with some institutions to roll out significant and meaningful funding solutions. These concepts are currently under development and involve different key stakeholders.”

The previous training model for young pilots at the Lufthansa Group’s European Flight Academy (EFA) was based on deferral. Plans on how the future EFA campus model will look like to meet the demands of the market are currently underway.

“In view of the drastically changed demand for young pilots within the airlines of the Lufthansa Group, courses have been suspended for several months and the airline representatives have turned to the EFA students and advised them to reorient and consider other job options/professions,” said an LAT spokesperson. “In order to support them in this area, students were offered to terminate their existing training relationship free of charge or to continue their training at an external flight school under EFA guidance. Until further notice, no new flight students will be trained at EFA. There is also currently no option to apply for upcoming courses.”

Jobs Lost, Careers Re-Vectored

The situation of pilots who lost their job during Covid and were not able to remain engaged by their employers long enough to repay the cost of training has become rather frequent during the recent downturn.

“This is obviously an undesirable situation and each person’s case is unique to them; however, it is not dissimilar in other industries where individuals might have significant student debt from the cost of study,” commented Woodward.

The situation of pilots who lost their jobs depends largely on the individual agreements between the respective airline and the personnel working in the flight deck. “We can confirm that the short-time work concept as well as relevant tariff agreements that are in place for the airlines of the Lufthansa Group guarantee pilots job security for the time being,” said LAT.

There is indeed no single solution to the variable situations of job losses. “Several operators are working hard to keep pilots on their books and meet pre-Covid agreements. Both new and existing pilots need continuous development so that when demand does return, they are able to resume their careers with the airlines,” said Hogston.

L3Harris has launched the ‘Current and Airline-Ready Programme’, which allows cadets who complete their training to maintain the validity of their licence/rating and continue the development of their professional competencies for up to two years or until they are offered an airline job. “This will position them to quickly gain employment when the recovery takes hold and support airlines to more rapidly increase capacity,” Hogston commented.

Woodward believes that while this is clearly a very challenging period for people in the pilot position, the airline industry will recover. “And it will recover more quickly than some people anticipate,” he said. “Well-trained pilots who might be out of work right now or having to work in other sectors for the time being, will once again be desirable by airlines. These are highly skilled, motivated, and capable people, whose talents will once again be in high demand.”

VR as a Training Complement

A trend which has accelerated during the pandemic focuses on virtual reality (VR) devices and other technological solutions to facilitate pilot training, complementary to flight simulator and aircraft training.

“Improvements in training technology have come on in leaps and bounds,” said Woodward. “We have seen fixed-base simulator (FBS) fidelity improve so much over the past five to 10 years that increasingly more training is delivered on such devices at a fraction of the cost of a traditional full-flight simulator (FFS). Intelligent combination training is the way ahead, with the use of cutting-edge computer-based training, high-fidelity FBS, VR and FFS all being used in a competency/evidence-based training practice to maximise training benefit. This may or may not reduce training cost, but I believe it will certainly produce better-trained pilots and safer flight operations.”

As an approved training organisation (ATO), LAT is guided by the requirements of its customer airlines regarding training delivery. “We have over 100 customers and align the training on the one hand with the respective requirements of the crews and the official regulatory requirements,” said the LAT spokesperson. “Training in the usual format, including in simulators, continues to be in demand. Our latest additions to the fleet such as lower-level training devices – which we operate in Vienna and Zurich – have also quickly become very popular with airlines for training.”

VR training solutions are already in the range of training services offered by LAT.

“We do not immediately see any replacement of training in the simulator with training alone with the help of VR solutions. However, together with our customers we intend to think further in this direction and evaluate possible tools that can be useful when integrated in our existing training,” said LAT. “We do not see an immediate replacement of one training device category against the other since all products have to be compliant at all ends.”

Indeed, according to Hogston, there will always be a need for aircraft and simulator training as they provide the most realistic, high-fidelity training which is required for advanced levels of competency training.

“However, the improvement of virtual reality and other training devices is allowing us to deliver training across a broader range of devices which provides more flexibility in delivering the programme and cost,” he commented. “The advanced technology used in devices is also supporting data and evidence-based training which will allow us to better tailor our programmes to support individual pilot and airline needs.”