The air travel boom is a global phenomenon, leading to industry leaders and employees calling for more trained pilots to meet unprecedented demand. Meanwhile, airlines servicing New Zealand routes deny a pilot supply issue currently exists and put most flight cancellations down to weather or aircraft serviceability, not staffing issues. As the debate heats up, what role does the Government have in at least meeting future pilot demand and is there action or just hot air?
This past summer New Zealand’s air space experienced its most crowded and busiest on record. By mid-January 2017, Airways New Zealand figures showed an 18% increase in traffic volumes on two years ago; this is coming from both domestic and international traffic. In the previous 12 months there were an extra 315 jet movements per week throughout the country. Airways pointed to iincreased competition in the market as a major factor for this unprecedented growth.
Many wider factors continue to literally fuel demand. More airlines, particularly low cost carriers, look to cater to a rising middle class throughout the Asia/Pacific region; positive economic indicators are putting more disposable income into traveller’s pockets; increases generally in in-bound tourism and domestic air travel, and a growing proliferation of Gulf carriers with an interest in New Zealand as both a transfer point and destination.
More travellers, more planes, increased infrastructure and intense demand would assume there was a local increase in those highly trained men and women that fly them. But for New Zealand, and more importantly for the two major domestic carriers, Air New Zealand and Jetstar New Zealand, there is yet to be any admission of a flight crew shortage.
During the 2016/17 holiday period, NZALPA received several calls from journalists and members of the public about cancelled flights. As most air passengers know, flight delays and cancellations are part of the risk you take when choosing air travel – weather and technical issues being the major reasons. Unexpected illnesses and other human and technology factors can also upset plans in what are major logistical exercises occurring constantly in the thousands of airports around the globe.
Both Air New Zealand and Jetstar maintain the major reason for any cancellations over this period was weather-related.
Airways New Zealand CEO Ed Sims said in a statement in January that the industry was “responding well to the extra air traffic…which is great news for New Zealand which benefits from greater tourism and trade over the long term.”
“Investments in the modernisation of New Zealand’s airspace as well as strong partnerships between airlines, airports and air traffic control are helping to manage this extra demand while dramatically improving efficiency and minimising environmental impacts,” said Sims.
However, in New Zealand airports cracks were allegedly starting to show, leading to frustrated passengers and reportedly increasingly exhausted staff. Regional flights were particularly heavy and some of the most experienced pilots were grumpily reporting the need to work on rostered days off, for example, as there was simply no one else to fly the planes.
Aviation New Zealand’s Chief Executive John Nicholson, whose 260 members include flight schools, air lines, and other aviation providers, had been growing increasingly concerned so looked inward to its membership to both take the temperature and discuss ways to grow trained pilot numbers.
“We’ve got some of the best aviation training schools in the world,” Nicholson said, “our Government also does an excellent job supporting the promotion of these facilities offshore.”
“But it in our view, we aren’t training enough pilots to fill current and future demand in New Zealand – particularly those with the requisite flying hours needed for passenger jets.”
NZALPA president Tim Robinson is more blunt about where the barriers are and believes that as well as airlines, central government has more of a role to play – particularly those who administer student training loans and payments.
“It’s not cheap for a person to become a pilot,” Robinson said, “yet its one of the most sought after professions, particularly for young men and, increasingly, women,”
“Student loans are now an accepted part of tertiary and skilled training but a trainee pilot is only entitled to two $35,000 loan payouts for the entire training period of up to two years. On top of this they must make up to a minimum of 1000 flying hours in order for an airline to even take them on for their specific training.”
“For a graduate pilot, the total training bill alone will exceed $100,000” said Robinson.
Then many must then ‘do their time’ in a general aviation role, particularly in the hope of building up the required flying hours and still pay the bills.
“Every worker deserves a fair wage and during the immediate post-training period we’ve heard dreadful stories of exploitation that should, hopefully, change since the abolishment of zero-hour contracts and the raising of the minimum wage. The practice of engaging contractors who are paid below minimum wage levels, however, remains a concern.
“It’s so disheartening to see a new pilot lose their enthusiasm and drive as they work several non-flying jobs just to get by and pay off their student and other loans,” Robinson said.
“Other highly trained graduates like doctors and engineers may be earning adequate money in their first professional roles but an aviator is almost alone in that he or she will struggle financially for much longer.”
“This means putting off travel, dreams, buying a house or having children while they wait to fly. All this seems perverse when New Zealand could be facing the most critical pilot shortage ever,” Robinson said.
Aviation New Zealand has recently begun to address the shortage through facilitating greater contact between employers of low-hour pilots and the training schools to ensure that the cadets are getting the right training experience and are more ‘employment ready’ when they finish training. This makes them more employable and puts them on the ladder to longer term success.
Another concern from its members was the quality and retention of the flight instructor talent pool. Along with trained pilots, it was this group that was often targeted and ‘hoovered up’ by the airlines, Nicholson said.
“The New Zealand aviation industry lacks a core of flight Instructors. We need to work for flight instruction to be a recognised as a highly trained profession in itself.”
Meanwhile, although denying there is a pilot shortage, Qantas and Jetstar are currently advertising internationally for pilots to fly within New Zealand.
Further competition comes from careers offered by what Robinson refers to as the ‘heavily state subsidised’ Gulf airlines. Many experienced New Zealand pilots fly jets operated by Dubai-based Emirates and the company recently brought its recruitment roadshow to Auckland and Christchurch in a bid to entice more New Zealand-trained aviators.
In partnership with Boeing, Emirates has constructed its own dedicated flight school, which can train up to 600 pilots in one intake, with preference first for UAE nationals, then for offshore students.
A major part of the motivation is the widely-projected figures by both Boeing and Airbus, who estimate graphically (below) that 617,000 new pilots will be required by 2035, particularly for the Asia-Pacific region.
"The global demand for pilots is at an all time high and we must preserve New Zealand's expertise by ensuring working terms and conditions in New Zealand are attractive enough to provide a secure career path, thus delivering a safe and experienced piloting workforce in New Zealand,” Robinson said.
This demand is also compounded by countries such as the US where pilots are required to retire at 65 by the governing Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). A similar case was lost on jurisdiction issues in the New Zealand Court of Appeal late last year when Cathay Pacific enforced its retirement age on two New Zealand-based pilots at age 55.
With enforced retirements, not only are valuable pilots lost to airline fleets, but also gone is the experience and skill needed to train new airline First and Second Officers who require around 1500 flying hours and to be taught by his or her Training Captain.
Despite recent changes in immigration policy, bringing overseas pilots to New Zealand to fly, or training more overseas students who can afford to attend our flying schools might appear to be one answer. But this is short-term thinking, Robinson argues.
“Not only would this be a knee jerk reaction, the Government needs to view this issue as an opportunity from an economic development, training and upskilling perspective.
“Even with the significant air travel growth in the last 36 months and heated competition between carriers, the industry is still considered by economists to be cyclical. But there remains real pressure on pilot numbers and this current growth rate is expected to continue.
“Meanwhile pilots retire or leave for offshore opportunities and we’re not getting enough new pilots coming through the training schools.”
“Rather than trying to fill gaps by trying to attract pilots into New Zealand, the Government needs to invest in more industry training and increase the number and amount available through student loans.
New Zealand’s airlines need to bring in cadetships and in-house training opportunities that build loyalty to the brand. They also need to offer good pay rates and not erode terms and conditions. This is an obvious way they could help stem the hemorrhaging of staff to their global competition.”
Fairfax media recently reported the Ministry of Transport’s willingness to meet with industry groups to discuss the pilot shortage, which it acknowledges exists.
Both Aviation New Zealand, which agrees emphatically that putting pilots on any immigration professional skills shortage list is not a viable answer, and NZALPA will be taking the Ministry up on this offer.
They will also be looking to discuss the issue with the Minister and other cross-government officials.
“The industry and the country desperately needs good trainees to stay and build their careers in New Zealand, Robinson said,
“Investment in training and upskilling will provide sustainable and long term economic benefits for our industry, tourism and our regional centres,” Robinson said.
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