As we put this edition of Uplink together, the biggest carrier in the Gulf, Emirates Airline, is on a recruitment drive in New Zealand looking to attract our pilots. Meanwhile, Jetstar has been recruiting for pilots to fly throughout the country’s regional network. Being internationally-renowned as one the best countries for pilot training is great recognition for New Zealand, and further underpins the high standards and competence of our members.
However, in a time of tremendous global demand for pilots, the industry is grappling with the need for long-term strategic thinking to keep New Zealanders flying in New Zealand and to make sure our high standards are not eroded at the risk of pilot terms and conditions – and ultimately to ensure the safety of both air crew and the travelling public.
Although recognising the surge in global demand, and despite New Zealand’s airspace just having experienced one of the busiest summers on record, oddly the country’s major airlines refuse to publicly admit that there are problems with pilot supply.
With higher demand for air travel and increasing global competition, we can understand there would be commercial reasons for doing so, but international airlines like Emirates are still coming to our shore and offering both their own training facilities and better salaries.
The trade off may be onerous terms and conditions of employment, particularly with longer flying hours, less prescriptive regulation around fatigue and duty hours, coupled with less family-friendly working environments, but how much choice does a pilot have?
It seems the problem of pilot supply is being compounded by those who’ve trained as pilots but who are choosing not to fly. This is either because they are looking at offshore alternatives to traditional flying careers, such as in logistics or the wider transport industries, or others who’ve invested in aviation training but used those skills to instead run an alternative business.
Of increasing concern to NZALPA is that often the motivator for pilot graduates is to pay off debt, which is forcing them to take a shorter term, financially-driven alternative to following their original flying dreams since non-flying jobs are likely to offer more attractive terms and conditions of employment. Many longer serving pilots, particularly in the regions, are feeling the pressure from the effects of customer-driven demand and changes in major carrier international schedules. This means eroded quality of work life and the consequent impact on family life from working on days off when there are simply not enough pilots available to fly the schedule.
The industry as a whole needs to recognise that, along with the benefits of better on-time performance, reliability of connections, and growth in regional and international tourism, changes to achieve these goals must also consider the staff effects – especially those flying the regional fleet – to ensure the wellbeing, health and safety of staff, let alone the extra logistical challenges of more and frequent flights.
At the most basic level, the industry must make sure that its greatest resource – its people – is looked after. The demands of those who wish to travel are being met, but not necessarily those who fly them. Any pilot shortage will not be assisted by financial barriers to training, flight hours that drive graduates out of the industry, eroded terms and conditions, or a lack of visible career path that threatens airline loyalty. Experience in the US has shown that hiring and retaining qualified pilots becomes easier when airlines improve terms and conditions of employment, quality of life and create career-advancement opportunities such as flow-through programmes to mainline carriers.
The industry needs to work together to find viable and sustainable solutions. Along with Aviation New Zealand, NZALPA agrees that the answer does not lie in the pilot profession being put on any immigrant-seeking skills shortage list. Given New Zealand’s unique terrain, geography and quickly changing weather patterns, the reality is that we operate in some of the most challenging flying conditions in the world. Consequently, our focus needs to be on safety, experience and sustainably managing the issue into the future.
There aren’t simple solutions to the challenges of rapid industry change, and we’ll delve further into the wider pilot supply issues in next month’s Uplink Quarterly – just in time for the NZALPA Annual Conference in Christchurch. Together we can help progress the thinking.
We look forward to seeing you there.
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