Global pilot shortage hits Australia, with cancelled regional routes just the beginning
ABC News, 22 July 2018
Passengers are becoming used to flights being cancelled due to weather, or even volcanoes, but now a new trend is beginning to upset travel plans across the country. Airlines are having to cancel flights, and even entire routes, because there literally isn’t anyone available to fly the plane.
A total of 10,808 domestic flights were cancelled last year, according to the latest annual report from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics — at a rate of 1.9 per cent, up from the long-term average of 1.4 per cent.
While it is hard to determine exactly how many of these cancellations were caused by a pilot shortage, analysts say the situation is set to worsen in one of the world’s fastest growing industries.
The most recent statistics from Boeing predict over the next two decades that 640,000 new pilots will be needed to sustain the industry, with almost 40 per cent of those required in the Asia Pacific region.
In recent years, a growing trend has emerged of Australian pilots taking off for lucrative deals with overseas airlines, particularly in the Middle East and China.
It is a complex situation with nobody in the industry able to agree on how best to move forward, or even determine what exactly has caused the pilot drought.
Customers to suffer in ‘perfect storm’
At this stage, it is mostly regional carriers and smaller charter services being hit — but the impact is being felt across the community.
Just this weekend, the Carnarvon races in WA’s north were cancelled when it was announced staff and jockeys could not get a pilot to charter them to the event.
It is a similar story in the Northern Territory where ChartAir, a charter carrier that provides crucial services to remote areas, has had to permanently ground one of its planes.
ChartAir CEO Douglas Hendry said the company was turning away at least a million dollars in business each year.
“Traditionally you had pilots joining us for three to four years. It was like an apprenticeship,” he said.
“[But] we’ve seen junior pilots, who don’t really meet any of the minimum requirements that the airlines used to have, are now leaving us much sooner.”
Mr Hendry said the global demand of major airlines was driving the shortage, but in the end it was the smaller players in the industry — and ultimately customers — who were suffering.
“The Chinese carriers are looking to recruit hundreds of thousands of pilots over the next 15 to 20 years,” he said.
Pilot shortage impacting flying schools
For David Currey, who heads the Aero Club of WA training academy, the shortage means fewer pilot teachers.
“You must appreciate with pilot shortage it starts from the big boys — the Qantas, Virgins — they start recruiting from the regionals, such as Skippers Alliance Network, and they then come and they recruit from the flying schools,” he said.
It is a great deal of change in an already dynamic industry.
The Aero Club runs out of Jandakot Airport, a general aviation hub in metropolitan Perth.
Now, China Southern Airlines has a pilot academy due to reopen at the airfield while a Singapore-owned pilot school has also applied to operate in the space.
“I believe that within the next year there’ll be a minimum of 70 extra instructor jobs being created at Jandakot Airport,” Mr Currey said.
“[It’s] a demand that will be difficult to fill.”
Qantas, Virgin accused of ‘rapacious plundering’
Earlier this month Regional Airlines — also known as Rex — issued a statement to its customers warning of potential cancellations due to a “critical pilot shortage”.
“Rex is not able to have its usual contingent of stand-by pilots rostered for duty,” chief operating officer Neville Howell said.
“Consequently any last-minute sick leave may result in flights being cancelled or combined with other routes.”
Ten years ago Rex began its own training school, the Australian Airline Pilot Academy, in an effort to increase its own pilot numbers.
But Mr Howell said it was not enough to “stave off Qantas and Virgin Australia’s rapacious plundering of Rex’s pilot pool”.
“In the past two years, these two airlines collectively have poached 17 per cent and 56 per cent of Rex’s first officer and captain establishment respectively,” he said in the statement.
“These two airlines are causing widespread chaos and disruptions to regional air travel by their selfish and irresponsible actions.”
A Qantas spokesperson responded, stating that it was “natural to see some movement between airlines from people seeking advancement, just like in every other industry”.
“No Australian airline invests more in training pilots than the Qantas Group, and we’ve been doing that for almost 100 years,” they said.
Qantas steps up pilot recruitment
The Qantas Group, which includes Qantas and Qantas Link, is in the midst of the biggest training and recruitment drive in the company’s history.
From about 2009, the main airline initiated a pilot hiring freeze — and it went on to last seven years.
But the Qantas Group has hired over 600 new pilots from Australia since 2016, with plans to recruit an additional 350 by the end of the year.
The airline currently sources its pilots from a mix of flight schools, general aviation, the military and other commercial airlines.
Qantas has also been working with the Federal Government to bring in a limited amount of foreign pilots and simulator instructors on extended skilled worker visas.
The move has angered many who believe Qantas, as an industry leader, should be investing in Australian pilots instead.
But the airline in response has pointed to a $20 million commitment towards opening its own pilot training academy by 2019.
The Qantas Group Pilot Academy was announced earlier this year and, of the more than 60 regional cities that put forward proposals, nine made the first cut.
The shortlist includes:
Alice Springs, NT
Wagga Wagga, NSW
Qantas will announce the winning location for the school within the next month or so, once it has visited each city.
Competition stiff for training academy
Busselton deputy mayor David McCallum said securing the academy would be a great result for the entire South West region of WA.
“Essentially it would become like a small, specialised university with benefits to suppliers, tourism and in having an anchor tenant for the Busselton-Margaret River Airport,” he said.
“It would be a game-changer for the area.”
Mr McCallum said Qantas had very specific requirements, but he was confident the city met 99.9 per cent of them.
“The only thing we don’t have is a control tower, but the rest of the criteria we’ve pretty much met,” he said.
“Certainly 300 flyable days, we have a less congested airspace … when you compare [us with] the eastern states airports.
“We’ve got a brand new $30 million runway … we’ve got a space set aside for general aviation, we’ve got services in that — telecommunications, water, power, sewer — all of that’s ready to go. So what the Qantas Group will be inheriting here is a Greenfield site.”
But competition for the academy is stiff — all of the nine shortlisted towns see it having huge potential for growing the area.
In its first year of operation, Qantas wants to put 100 new recruits through the academy before eventually working up to 500 students annually.
And with women making up just 3 per cent of the global pilot workforce, the airline has made addressing the gender imbalance a priority.
More female pilots a priority
Qantas second officer Arika Maloney, who has been with the airline for eight years, said she could already see things starting to change.
“It’s still male-dominated simply because, I guess, it’s a stereotype that’s not quite been broken as yet,” the 33-year-old from Adelaide said.
“There’s certainly no reason why a female can’t become a pilot.
“I think there has been a definite shift and we’re definitely seeing some more women within the Qantas Group and more females looking at aviation as a potential career.”
WA Aero Club instructor Layla Harrison agreed there was no reason why women could not enter the profession.
“I think the problem is girls don’t realise that they can go down that pathway, they look at aviation and they think cabin crew, ground crew,” she said.
Ms Harrison had never even been in a plane until she was offered a scholarship to study aviation out of high school.
Despite having been offered a place at the WA Academy of Performing Arts, she took the scholarship and has never looked back.
“I gave it a go, fell in love with it and here I am,” she said.
The 23-year-old said she got a lot of joy out of teaching and, for now, was happy to remain an instructor — but she had not ruled out flying commercially in the future.
“I’d like to see many different avenues of aviation,” she said.
“It’s about enjoying flying, being in an aeroplane, really experiencing the magic and passion of aviation.
“I’d love to see what else is out there, what else I can do with it.”