Dubai Air Show: Are we facing a pilot shortage?

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Media captionShaima Rashed of Etihad Airways is one of the UAE's first female commercial pilots

The growth plans of the Gulf airlines continue to amaze and surprise - but Etihad and Emirates are not the only carriers ordering new aircraft at the Dubai Air Show.

Airlines from the Asia-Pacific region have their own expansion ambitions. The order backlog at Boeing and Airbus keeps growing.

But who is going to be flying all these aircraft?

Warnings that global aviation could face a pilot shortage made little impact when the industry was in recession and staff were being laid off.

Now that air travel is recovering, questions about who will be sitting at the controls are back on the agenda.

"The urgent demand for competent aviation personnel is a global issue that is here now and is very real," said Sherry Carbary, vice-president of Boeing Flight Services.

Airbus's latest forecast is that air traffic will grow 4.7% annually over the next 20 years. Boeing predicts 5% annual growth. That translates into a demand for between 29,220 and 35,280 new aircraft.

It means, according to a report by Boeing, that about 498,000 new commercial airline pilots will be needed over the next two decades.

Europe and the US will need a big share of the new pilots, although much depends on when and how fast these regions emerge from their economic troubles.

The real near-term growth is coming from emerging economies and relatively immature markets.

Sunday's news that Dubai's budget carrier Flydubai is buying 100 Boeing 737 aircraft underlines how airlines are exploiting previously underdeveloped travel markets.


Nick Leontidis, president of civil products and training operations at CAE, one of the world's biggest providers of simulators and training programmes, said that other market trends were also contributing to pilot demand.

Senior pilots recruited during the aviation expansion in the 1980s and early 1990s will be approaching retirement just as demand generated from emerging economies and the expected US recovery moves up a gear.

Image caption New US regulations will require pilots to take longer rest periods

Meanwhile, over the past decade pilot training and recruitment fell in the US and Europe - indeed, the recession led to redundancies and lay-offs. Mr Leontidis sees no reason why many of these pilots should not resume their careers.

"So long as they have got the necessary medical certificate, they could be brought back into action," he said. But it would not be enough to meet a demand that he describes as "unprecedented".

Meanwhile, tougher US regulations will require more flying experience for new pilots and longer rest periods.

It adds to the strain on the global pool of talent. There have even been reports of pilot-poaching, with airlines targeted by bigger rivals offering better terms and conditions.


In the UK, at the pilots' union Balpa, head of career services Wendy Pursey said talk of a shortage was premature.

The Gulf carriers and other fast-expanding airlines were having to recruit mainly top-tier pilots - the captains - to meet their needs, she said. But further down the career ladder, there were still plenty of pilots looking for jobs.

Image caption Etihad's chief operations officer Richard Hill says his airline doesn't need to advertise, word gets around.

She said Balpa had about 500 out-of-work pilots on its books. Some might move abroad, but the expat life is neither practical nor appealing for everyone.

For Ms Pursey, if there is to be a shortage of trained pilots, it will be felt by the regional airlines as experienced staff are snapped up by the bigger and more prestigious carriers.

Even so, the major carriers are discovering they cannot rely on expats to fill their vacancies.

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad, which on Sunday unveiled orders and options for 199 aircraft, is also buying $200m (£124m) worth of simulators and training tools for its pilots' academy.

Etihad is investing heavily in a cadet programme, taking on about 50 trainees each year. The majority of recruits are UAE nationals.

"The demand is fairly large," said Richard Hill, Etihad's chief operations officer. "We don't have to advertise. Word gets round in the community."

At any one time there might be 5,000 applications from experienced or potential pilots on Etihad's books, he said.

Pilot roadshows

Having built an aviation industry, the UAE is keen that its airlines bring local nationals through the ranks. It's part of strengthening the local economy.

Also, expats tend to eventually move on. "Most of the UAE nationals join Etihad because they want to stay and develop their career here," Mr Hill said.

Etihad even holds roadshows in schools to tempt local children into the profession. "Until five or six years ago there was not much of an option for Emiratis to become pilots, other than to join the airforce," he said.

Importantly, local nationals get free training. Foreigners must agree to repay their training costs over five years, even if they leave the airline.

With a rich source of potential and willing trainees, Mr Hill is not too concerned about a pilot shortage. "I've been in the business for 32 years, and there has been an impending pilot shortage every year of those 32," he said.

But he acknowledges that if the aviation market in Europe and the US picked up rapidly, it could have an impact on Etihad's recruitment plans as experienced expats returned or the pool of potential overseas recruits dried up.

But, then, that's why the airline, and its Gulf rivals, have started intensive training programmes. "So that we can, if necessary, increase the numbers if we were to find it difficult to recruit from the rest of the world," he said.

And with Etihad receiving far more applications than there are vacancies, he's not losing sleep over the matter just yet.

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