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July 2, 2007
Training woes in the USA are even more advanced than elsewhere in the world, and by all accounts are set to get much worse. Solutions elude academies and universities, and the airlines are running out of flight instructors to hire.
"The regional airlines are going to be very hard pressed to get the number of pilots they need if they continue to hire at this rate," predicts Wally David, chief executive of SimCom, an Orlando, Florida-based training provider.
"We're getting awfully good at getting our students jobs," says Rick Maloney, dean of the college of aviation at Western Michigan University. But as for their replacements, he adds: "You can send any my way. We're looking, looking, looking."
The reason Maloney cannot keep flight instructors longer than eight months on average, when they once stayed on for two years after graduating, is because airlines are accepting new recruits with as few as 500 flight hours and 100 multi-engine hours.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, those figures rose to 1,500h and 500h, according to Atlanta, Georgia-based AIR, which tracks airline pay and hiring.
"In a year or two, it began to drift down again to 1,000h and 100h, and now we're at 500 and 50 again," says AIR president Kit Darby. "And now we're seeing some go below that to 250h, which is really all it takes to get a licence."
Traditionally, graduates return as instructors, gaining flight hours while they teach others what they have learned. Turnover is always expected, and only full-time, long-term instructors usually get benefits.
But the days of taking flight instructors for granted are over, says Adam Penner, operations manager of Harv's Air, a flight school based in Winnipeg, Canada.
"It's a constant concern. Many pilots are skipping becoming a flight instructor and moving straight into the industry." Only five of Penner's 28 instructors have worked there more than five years and, in his 13 years at Harv's, only one has retired.
Western Michigan University has 90 instructors, with 65% of all graduates returning for the post, and 10 working full time and receiving benefits.
Chief flight instructor Tom Grossman recalls the days when the school did not even have to advertise for instructors. "As a matter of fact, at various times we have had a surplus of flight instructors, where we weren't able to offer positions," he says.
Now the university is looking into pay rises and new benefits packages, as is Harv's Air and the department of aviation at the University of North Dakota.
"Since August last year we've lost about 195 flight instructors," says the university's assistant chief flight instructor, John Rudolph. In the fourth quarter of last year the instructor force totalled 235. Now it is nearly 140, but autumn is the time they are really needed, says Rudolph, and the university hopes to have 200 instructors by then.
North Dakota plays down its concern. "This industry is used to hills and valleys. It's all a cycle. We don't know the answers," it says, pointing to the long-discussed shortage of air traffic controllers. "It's coming up on us and it'll be dealt with in a thoughtful way."
Peter Theakston, a pilot with fractional-ownership operator NetJets, also points to how the industry experiences cycles. In 1963 the airline veteran worked for two years as an instructor in south Florida before a hiring blitz exploded.
"The airlines were hiring like crazy and they were decimating the instructor ranks. This is nothing new," he says. Now that pilots are in demand, he adds, "the people who are running flight schools need to sweeten the pot. It doesn't pay much. It's not steady. What's the draw there?"
Rising cost to students
Already at Harv's Air, students are paying higher tuition fees so the school can hire instructors. At Western Michigan, Maloney says: "We absolutely do not want to drive the student cost up. I'm hoping we can figure out a way to do this without raising the cost to the student, but I'm not sure that's possible."
Even as tuition costs go up, some say students will continue to see the value in a career with the airlines, while others note that interest from students has diminished.
SimCom's David says: "Starting about three years ago, there has been a significant decline in interest in pursuing commercial aviation as a career. There has been a reduction in the student funding available from a variety of sources."
Those who do want to attend flying school cannot always find a spot, says Western Michigan's Grossman. "There have been periods when we have not had the instructional staff to accommodate all the flight students." And the 80% instructor turnover rate taxes those who are still instructing.
"We're spending an inordinate amount of energy and resources qualifying the individuals who do come for a flight instructor position," he says, because of the two- to three-week indoctrination course, which takes up to 80h.
"We want to make sure they are teaching the same processes and same practices as any other flight instructor at Western Michigan."
Pilots trained in the military could ease instructor shortages, but AIR's Darby highlights how few military pilots move to commercial aviation, and how the pool is thinned by job concerns tied to terrorism and labour disputes.
"So the number of people available in flight-training programmes has been reduced at a time when we need more than ever."
"There's no lack of people in the general population who want to be pilots. There's no lack of pilots who want to be professionals. There's no lack of professionals who want to be airline pilots. The rub is it costs $125,000-150,000 to do that in a year and the individual can't afford that."
Students cannot afford it, neither can regional airlines, he says, because they compete so fiercely to be feeder carriers for the bigger airlines.
"My concern is these small airlines run such tight margins, with the bigger airlines giving their flying to the lowest bidder, that there's not much room to pay to train pilots. That model is going to have to change."
Several changes are needed, says Darby. "Hiring every available instructor to be line pilots sort of kills the roots and kills the tree. You're killing the ability to make more pilots frequently. Our training is not really tailored to what airlines need. It's designed for flying a single-engined or multi-engined airplane by yourself, and at airlines you don't really fly anything by yourself."
NetJets pilot Theakston has flown for Singapore Airlines and Saudi Arabian Airlines, whose training programmes pre-screen candidates.
"The people they hire have no flying time, and it's a long, drawn-out, arduous learning process, but it's very thorough," he says. "They don't get hired unless they're pretty darn sharp."
Several industry officials think raising the maximum age limit for pilots is on the cards again. Language requirements can be loosened, and a new concept called multi-crew pilot licensing (MPL) could help in the USA.
Xavier Herve, chief executive of Canadian simulator manufacturer Mechtronix Systems, says: "MPL is another way to look at the world. It's set up as a very standard way to take a 200h pilot into the right seat of a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320. MPL could deal with the specific problem of not having enough production of right-seat pilots for major airlines."
The price of MPL training is too high for most people, says Darby, "but it's a solution in that it creates new pilots in a year". MPL is being used to solve pilot shortages in other parts of the world, "which are more severe than our own", he says.
It's exactly what we need here in the USA, but the USA has not embraced it. We don't even have a test programme. Use of this programme is two or more years away, but we are going to run out before that."
Asked why it is not interested in MPL, the US Federal Aviation Administration says: "Our aviation professionals - men and women with significant experience in different classes of aviation - believe pilots entrusted to fly the public should have a broad background of coming up through the ranks of general aviation - student, private, commercial, instrument - or through the military."
No single solution has the momentum to save the day in the near future. Penner of Harv's Air plans to appeal even more strongly to graduates to stay on as instructors. "They're locals, most of them, and home is where the heart is."
If he could, he would also hire US instructors, but says: "The American students can't work here, and the Canadian students can't work in the States - not easily, anyway."
Western Michigan's chief instructor has been pounding the pavements to find instructors. "The most recent aspect we've been trying is going into college career services databases and advertising," says Grossman. The lure he offers is higher pay and benefits.
Regional airlines that are losing pilots to the majors are hiring instructors instead.
Until recently, a spell as an instructor was a safe bet for new pilots keen to build their hours. But with regional airlines cutting experience levels for first officers, flying schools are struggling to fill right-hand seats.
Classroom technology is helping instructors, but there is no substitute for experience