22 Challenges to Airline Pilot Supply ... and a Call to Urgent Action

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The extended grounding of airliners with no-one to fly them is exacerbating airline recovery from the pandemic. Capt. John Bent, FRAeS, suggests that some mitigation is possible if immediate action is initiated.

After 22 months of pandemic, I believe that the global training industry is grossly under-prepared to meet the training demands of airlines post pandemic.

Last year, some investors subscribed to the concept of a global chain of new-generation flight schools with a strong competency-based training syllabus, aimed at wider inclusion, new-generation learning styles, new training technologies, and reduced emission equipment.

The idea was to use pandemic downtime for the development phase, during which it was expected that the volume of active global training resources would shrink, as it has. The assumption was based on supply-and-demand data, that on exit from the pandemic training demand would surge. I joined the project steering group with enthusiasm.

After nine months of detailed work, including business plans, investor subscriptions were not converted to funding, and the project was put on hold. Advice from the financial industry suggests that investors had moved away from the pandemic-ravaged aviation industry towards ‘new sustainability projects’ with even higher projected returns. Nonetheless, project engagement with the investment community continues.

Although projections do not show a recovery to 2019 levels of airline activity until 2024, it takes at least 2-3 years for new-start Approved Training Organisations (ATOs) to graduate CPLs / ATPs, and the window remains open to do this, but only just.

This article builds on two previous commentaries from Capt. John Bent:

Recovery Projections and Threats

Impressive projections published by ICAO, IATA and other aviation bodies have helped us understand the commercial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and to assess potential recovery cycle scenarios.

Pre-pandemic, the aviation industry supported US$3.5 trillion (4.1%) of Global GDP. This contribution from a safe and efficiently functioning airline industry will be vital to governments in the pandemic recovery. Every airliner which remains grounded due to lack of pilots could further drain operators by US$300,000 to US$1,000,000 per month.

But it seems harder to find commentary or assessment of the safety risks during airline recovery, due to potentially weakened pilot competencies, supply and training.

The professionals at the coal face of our industry, managing crisis after crisis, will understandably argue that, after decades of safety program enhancements from technological solutions and training programs, we are now seeing that the critical 'human-ware' part of the safety system is under severe attack from the effects of pandemic fatigue.

To recover safe airline operations, we need many ingredients, especially these three:

  1. Fully Serviceable Airliners
  2. Airline Recovery Resources
  3. Competent Pilots

Some of the 17,000 airliners that were grounded by mid-2020 are gradually re-entering service using well-understood maintenance inspections of systems, function, and procedures. Provided these actions are properly provisioned, executed, and overseen by regulators, this hardware part of the equation should be the least difficult to execute. But most airlines have no spare financial recovery resources for new initiatives.

This commentary concentrates on the supply of competent pilots to restart airline operations.

Post-Pandemic Airline Challenges

Airlines drive professional pilot training demand all the way back to ab initio training, which tends to be outsourced nowadays. Pre-pandemic, there were approximately 400 global commercial airlines; 70% had slowed or suspended operations by mid 2020.

But in the primary training field, many of the approximately 2,200 ATOs engaged in the training of professional pilots lost most of their students during the pandemic and some were unable to stay in business. Estimates suggest that 30-40% of ATOs have closed. ATOs received no government support, though airlines have; yet in 2020, airline closures still occurred, and today airline failures are estimated upwards of 60 (15%+).

Airlines face significant challenges as they emerge from the pandemic:

1. Absence of a historical model. Outside major wars, the Covid pandemic has been an unprecedented crisis in this fragile industry. There is no ‘recovery model’ to cut and paste. Almost all components of the industry have been deeply disrupted and the effects could linger for a decade or more. More system thinking may be needed beyond the immediate challenges.

2. Many have been on financial life support, which governments are unlikely to be able to continue.

3. Debt repayments to governments will impact bottom lines for surviving airlines.

4. Short cuts. The temptation may exist for airlines to use minimum regulatory standards to get airliners back in the air, with potential safety outcomes. Band-aid training regulation for pandemic emergence is being tested at State levels but is not yet fully proven and incidents seeming to relate to the pandemic have already occurred.

5. New-start airlines are benefiting from reduced leasing rates, and are able to leverage reduced staff and crew costs made available by the closed airlines. Free of government debt, these new operators present serious competition to surviving airlines.

6. Rising airline costs. Oil prices are up. Crew costs, trimmed during the pandemic, are likely to rise again in response to increasing pilot shortages.

7. Short-termism. Industry leaders are overwhelmed with immediate challenges and may not have time or resources to look further forward.

8. Regulatory lag. Slow production rates for new regulation are understandably caused by prudent ‘due process time’. But if this pilot supply and training challenge is to be met, this time does not exist.

The industry cannot afford to allow the safety of the travelling public to be compromised during the reemergence of air travel. Solutions are actionable but only if regulators are vigorously engaged in the driving seat. For this to happen the challenge must be recognized and acknowledged.

9. Lost expertise and experience. Many thought leaders in the training industry have passed on or are no longer active. As often happens with successive generations, much of their advice may have gone with them.

10. Reduced average piloting experience. Piloting is an experience-dependent profession, where experience is a key ingredient for successful management of abnormal situations. But average experience levels are shrinking due to:

a. A surge of on-schedule retirements during the pandemic (particularly in the US).
b. An abnormal volume of early retirements taken by experienced pilots who may have chosen alternative careers to provide for families.
c. Loss of career interest from grounded pilots seeing experiences of active pandemic pilots; ie, impacted mental health with international crews locked in hotel rooms under quarantine, and then isolated from family on return to home base, which could become a career norm ‘living with Covid’.
d. Further experience contraction as fresh graduates (if they can be found) refill the gap after the grounded pool and traditional sources have dried up.

11. Pilot shortages will not be replaceable from military and general aviation alone. Replacement will eventually have to come from primary ATOs.

12. Pilot poaching with be initiated by those airlines able to pay more. One major operator is already trawling globally for experienced pilots by offering good remuneration packages.

13. Staffing and standards will be impacted in the ‘poached’ airlines.

14. Increased training demand will result from increased pilot mobility and type changes, all from a depleted supply base.

15. Inadequate ATO supply. Due to legacy expectations from airlines that the ‘market’ would supply qualified pilots from primary training ATOs, airlines may not see in time the impact from the closure of an estimated 30-40% of pre-pandemic ATOs, which will have closed without students and revenues. When traditional sources have dried up, the inevitable demand surge around 2024 and beyond will have to come from surviving ATOs, whose organic growth is unlikely to fill the sizeable gap. So after direct sourcing is exhausted, ATO supply to commercial aviation will be inadequate and recovery will become stunted. The supply deficiency alone will need 2-3 years to address.

16. Output relevance, quality, and variable standards. Supply alone is not the only challenge. The experience loss demands that pilot training be more effective. Students should be inculcated with lasting competencies relevant to modern airline operations. The door must be closed to early inappropriate training which can inadvertently insert latent pathogens and risk into a piloting career. Pre-pandemic, there were already large variations in the quality and relevance of primary pilot training around the world; this is widely recognized. Primary students, many of whom progress to the airlines, continue to be trained by instructors without experience of airline operations. To standardize ATO output, there has been no identified body with the resources to audit 2,000+ ATOs, so this is a challenge without a current solution.

17. Development time. New-start ATOs have the opportunity to add relevance and quality but will require 2-3 development years to graduate new professional pilots.

18. Reduced career interest in piloting careers among young people may be an effect of the pandemic, dissuading many, and reducing the supply of motivated applicants feeding into the selection and training system.

19. A damaged system. The big question to ask. Is the pre-pandemic safety net of human professionalism and competencies fit for purpose during the emergence from this ‘100-year’ pandemic event?

20. Airline resources are thin. And understandably focused on short-term survival. Airlines may not wish to use any of their extremely limited resources to mitigate longer-term risk, relying on the market to correct itself.

21. Investors are less interested in anything ‘aviation’ and more excited about new-start sustainable businesses.

22. Safety risk. Pre-pandemic, the airline industry had achieved remarkable levels of safety. The factors described above combine to form an almost perfect storm which must be avoided if safety levels are to be maintained and protected.

The conundrums present both challenge and opportunity, but opportunity time is evaporating fast. The challenges of supply and training standards must be addressed now for the airline industry to recover to pre-pandemic activity levels by 2024.

Regulators are the only effective drivers to help secure the resources for industry action in the limited time available.

Image credit: BAA Training

What do we have?

  1. Still enough experience and common sense to build the solutions quickly.
  2. New training technologies and sustainability solutions to raise training impact and save considerable cost and time.

What do we not have?

  1. Much time left to execute new-generation training solutions to fill the gap ahead.
  2. Regulatory support. Obvious assurance that the challenges are understood.

What do we need?

  1. Regulators need to be lobbied to fully understand the training supply shortage ahead. There are bound to be differences by region, but from the global perspective, primary pilot training is where the critical shortages will apply. Competent surviving ATOs may say ‘but we are working hard within our regulatory constraints to correct current training deficiencies’. Indeed, for many regions and organisations this is true, but probably in the minority.
  2. Recognition that there is a pilot supply problem ahead so that industry can be organised to muster resources; mitigate risk to ensure a safe and efficient post-pandemic recovery.

Where do we go from here?

To the top - ICAO. The controlling agencies in aviation include ICAO, FAA, EASA, supported by respected and vested associations such as IATA, ATA, FSF, RAeS. Aviation regulators have a tough job in an industry which has developed so fast and been subject to so many globally disruptive events.

While there is no ‘world government’, the United Nations remains the highest body engaged by the international community to develop solutions to global challenges. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) is the UN aviation body with the responsibility to Member States to help meet looming global challenges; in this case, pilot supply and training. ICAO does not have legal teeth to enforce its Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS); this is the responsibility of States; but ICAO does have a contract signed by 193 States around the world with the commitments excerpted below.

Chapter VI - International standards and recommended practices Article 37

Adoption of International Standards and Procedures

Each contracting State underakes to collaborate in securing the highest practicable degree of uniformity in regulations, standards, procedures, and organization in relation to aircraft, personnel, airways and auxiliary services in all matters in which such uniformity will facilitate and improve air navigation. To this end the International Civili Aviation Organization shall adopt and amend from time to time, as may be necessary, international standards and recommended practices.

ICAO Survey – an immediate first step. Any doubts which may exist about capacity to train sufficient new professional pilots for the emerging airline industry could easily be dispelled by the use of a simple ICAO survey of contracting States asking two questions about the ATOs under their regulatory oversight:

  1. Summarise the ATOs supplying Commercial Pilots which have closed during the pandemic with approximate graduation rates lost.
  2. Summarise (a) active ATOs supplying Commercial Pilots with approximate maximum annual graduation rates; and (b) Standards of training applied under ICAO SARPS and local regulation.

It is possible that the actions above are already in play, and if so, these should be publicised as reassurance to the training industry.

ICAO is the only body which could reasonably demand answers to these questions. Any competent State regulator should be able answer these simple questions within a short time period. The results of this survey should immediately show the size of primary ATO supply challenges around the world in terms of volume and quality, enabling precise, focussed action.

Urgent Action is Possible

There is an understandable expectation that ‘proper legal process takes time’; usually years; but rapid responses at the UN and State levels are possible in crisis situations.

Two examples of response to global threats:

  1. After 9-11, an impressive resources were unleashed worldwide, demonstrating that, no matter how enormous challenges seem, with fortitude and determination a crisis can be overcome. The whole industry mustered together on a common cause.
  2. The new Covid-19 vaccines were produced in periods shorter than previously imaginable because the virus respected no borders, threatened human life, and governments literally threw resources at the pharmaceutical industry, facilitated by accelerated approval processes from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

While the projected shortfalls of pilot supply and primary training may be seen as a small issue compared to these examples, the investment needed to address this challenge is tiny compared to the many billions of dollars expended on 9-11 and the pandemic.

After three years of work by a broad international working group of industry SMEs, ICAO published Document 9868 (Multi-Crew Pilot License - MPL / Training SARP) in 2006; the first new licence since the 1940s. For a variety of reasons, the adoption of MPL training at State levels has been poor, yet MPL requirements include many of the agreed ingredients of modern primary training required by airlines and the safety industry, most notably a move away from prescriptive box-ticking processes to competency-based training. Anecdotal results from the performance of MPL graduates in airline service have been excellent.

Published requirements for MPL include higher standards for Instructors, a multi-crew training environment (using more flight simulation training devices tasked to training aims), embedded competency-based training, evidence-based training, upset prevention and recovery, and simulated ATC environment, the latter now at the level of maturity fit for purpose. Many of these components have been added to legacy CPL frameworks as ‘modules’ (tick box = done), where better practice suggests continuously embedded requirements in the syllabus.

Enhancements include the wider application of new technologies such as learning and training management systems (LMS/TMS), AI and VR/AR/MR, all aimed at enhancing learning and saving time and cost. It should not be a bridge too far for regulators to adopt existing ICAO SARPs under Doc 9868 plus the enhancements now available.

The Challenge

Getting airliners back into the air. Eighteen months ago, two-thirds of the world’s airliners were grounded. The cost of maintaining and financing these grounded aircraft for the past 20 months, each with a value in the range of USD 60-300 million, is unfathomable from any ordinary perspective. For operators facing almost weekly disruption via State border closures, it is therefore imperative to regain airliner productivity in the air the instant that the opportunity arises. But without the volume of qualified pilots needed, airliners will remain grounded, as already seen in the US.

ICAO and State regulatory actions are needed now. To enable 2024 to be the year of recovery to 2019 activity levels we must act on the primary pilot training supply issue now, or airliners could be grounded without pilots for much longer, bleeding finances up to US$1,000,000 per month per airframe.

If the ‘same-old-same-old’ legacy training processes are applied by surviving ATOs, there is no assurance of the protection of future safety margins. The content of training programs must be upgraded to meet the needs of the emerging airline industry. Most of the SARPS covering this are already published by ICAO and need adoption and execution by all contracting States.

Pre-pandemic there was already a large variation in the quality and relevance of primary pilot training around the world; State requirements varied, restrained by local legacy process, and the challenges of auditing 2,000+ ATOs. Apart from plugging capacity, quality and harmonisation must be priorities.

The challenges should not be underestimated as this pandemic is a seminal event; and the supply-and-demand rebalancing process could take a decade or more without immediate corrective action.

While there will be obvious public interest in aviation safety, there are many other parties with vested interests in safe and efficient air travel, including governments, airline associations, the tourism industry, and supply chain participants.

Outcomes of inaction: Failure to address these challenges could impact safety, sustain disruption, reduce airline revenues, add many millions in the future costs of training, and slow global economic recovery.

The Task Ahead: To provide regulatory support for the launch of a standardised batch of new-generation ATOs, using the same greenfield opportunity to utilise new training technologies, new instructor and competency-based training processes to add training relevance for modern airline operations and reduce the time and cost of training.

Launching a batch of new-generation ATOs aimed at graduating new-generation commercial pilots in 2-3 years’ time should meet at least some of the expected supply gap in the post pandemic surge. Resources for this will only be likely under regulatory decree.

We can use the same supply opportunity to raise the relevance and quality of primary pilot training, an industry-wide concern for decades. Primary training must be aligned with the needs of modern commercial aviation post pandemic, to address the threats, and to accommodate the learning needs of new generations entering the industry.

A few airlines have already seen the challenges and have acted by developing their own training organisations. But this still leaves a gaping supply hole to fill. For an initial batch of new-start ATOs to kickstart this process, only regulatory mandates will unlock the relatively small investment needed.

The investment needed for an initial batch of ATOs is estimated at US$10-20 million, a relatively small sum which will generate strong returns from the demand ahead. Safety returns from reduced risk of serious incidents and accidents will be a parallel outcome. But only strong regulatory support will drive action and attract the investment necessary.

State regulatory mandates, driven by ICAO, should unlock investment for this relatively low-cost project, but time is pressing.

About the Author

Capt. John Bent, FRAeS, recently completed a contract with Fiji Airways as Project Executive, Fiji Airways Aviation Academy, the first of its kind in the Pacific Islands. From initiation, the facility took eight months to groundbreaking and 30 months to the start of simulator operations (two FFSs). The design and build employed mostly local teams from the relatively small construction sector in Fiji with no experience for such an exacting facility. The academy is of green design, cyclone and seismic resistant, and user centric, with maximum natural light and acoustic protection to optimise learning. The Academy is located at Nadi International Airport, from which there are non-stop connections to many Asia-Pacific destinations.

Capt. Bent has been flying and training pilots since 1961 in the RAF and for five airlines. With 13,000 hours across 28 types, his achievements at Cathay Pacific Airways included the first train-the-trainer programme; the first crew performance marker system (which led to LOSA); the first electronic training reporting system, CRM LOFT and automation policy; crew training policy development, training management for the launch of an Airbus fleet (A340 and A330); and the first airline mixed-fleet flying.

He also championed the launch of a primary school in Hong Kong as founding chairman; training centre design for Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong Airlines, and Fiji Airways, and a simulation training operation in Asia for General Electric (GE Capital). He served as a lecturer at the University of New South Wales, and as consultant to IATA, IPTC, and CASA-ITSAP (for the Indonesian DGCA).

John is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society (FRAeS).

This article has been peer reviewed by four very experienced subject matter experts, one with a long and distinguished career in aviation safety and three from extensive training and operations management backgrounds.


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