Global Airlines

As Asian Air Travel Soars, Pilots Are Scarce


Asia's economies are booming, and so is demand for air travel across the region. Flying for business and pleasure is increasingly affordable for the combined 1.1 billion middle-class residents of China and India. All those potential fliers have translated into new orders for aircraft makers—Asia-Pacific airlines will buy about 8,000 planes worth $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years, according to Airbus. Less noticed is another group of beneficiaries: Asian pilots.

The International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts that airlines worldwide will need an average of 49,900 new pilots a year from 2010 to 2030 as fleets expand, yet current annual training capacity is only 47,025. The shortage is likely to be acute in Asia as three big carriers trying to capitalize on the region's rising prosperity, Cathay Pacific Airways, Qantas Airways, and Emirates Airline, await deliveries of about 400 planes. That's already sparking bidding wars for cockpit crews, with Emirates offering tax-free salaries and four-bedroom villas for captains and AirAsia, the region's biggest budget airline, providing tuition-free training for airmen willing to join its ranks.

"It's a major issue and will be a big challenge to the industry's growth," says Binit Somaia, a Sydney-based analyst for the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA). "Even if you can find the pilots, you have to pay top dollar for them because they are so scarce."

This year the Asia-Pacific region's carriers ordered 133 commercial jets with more than 100 seats each, or 23 percent of new orders globally, according to aviation forecaster Ascend Worldwide. With the economies of China and India expected to grow at more than double the global rate in the next few years, Asian carriers are likely to continue expanding. One result: "There will be a shortage of pilots, and this is going to last for a while because it takes time to produce a good pilot," says the president of the Airline Pilots Association of the Philippines, Elmer Pena. In July and August, Philippine Airlines canceled flights and rebooked passengers after losing 27 pilots to higher-paying jobs abroad.

Pilot demand in Asia contrasts with the U.S., where 4,500 airline pilots are on furlough, according to figures compiled by Kit Darby, a retired United Airlines (UAL) pilot now running an Atlanta-based consulting firm. That may not last long, however, since the global fleet of cargo and large passenger planes will double, to nearly 32,000, by 2028 from 15,750 last year, according to Airbus. The major U.S. airlines are expected to hire more than 40,000 pilots in the next 12 years, says Louis Smith, president of FltOps.com, which provides career counseling services and sponsors job fairs. "I believe one can expect serious shortages among the foreign carriers who can't afford to pay what it takes to attract qualified pilots," Smith says.

Emirates, which is expected to spend up to $28 billion on expansion through 2017 and has more than 200 planes on order, plans to recruit 250 pilots this year. The airline says it will double the number of pilot hires in 2011. To help find new crew members, Emirates has expanded its recruiting efforts in Houston, Madrid, and Singapore.

Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong's biggest carrier, will recruit 1,000 people, including crew, says Chief Operating Officer John Slosar. Indonesian carrier Garuda Indonesia placed newspaper advertisements this summer seeking pilots "fluent in English and of good character." And Jetstar Airways, the budget arm of Qantas, plans to recruit 120 pilots by next summer.

Some airlines aren't waiting for qualified talent to walk in the door. Singapore Airlines and AirAsia, based near Kuala Lumpur, have each set up their own tuition-free training academies. Singapore Air's flying school turns out about 150 cadet pilots a year, while AirAsia's facility trains as many as 500 annually. AirAsia's graduates must stay with the budget carrier for five years, Chief Executive Officer Tony Fernandes says. Other flight schools also are opening to help meet the demand. CAPA, for one, is investing at least $125 million to build an aerospace university in India that can train about 300 pilots a year, Somaia says.

The expected pilot shortage, plus hiring by a new crop of regional budget carriers, could push wages higher. "There is a misconception that low-cost airlines pay lower salaries," says Tony Davis, CEO of budget carrier Tiger Airways Holdings, part-owned by Singapore Air. "We couldn't do that in a competitive market."

Basic pay for Singapore Air captains flying twin-aisle Boeing 777s or Airbus A330s begins at 9,300 Singapore dollars ($7,138) a month, excluding allowances, says P. James, president of the Air Line Pilots Association of Singapore. Pilots also earn a productivity allowance of as much as $2,917 for flying 70 hours a month.

Emirates offers a starting monthly salary of 34,410 dirhams ($9,368) for captains. That excludes benefits such as hourly flying and productivity payments. Its other perks include a tax-free basic salary, profit sharing, villas for captains, and free dry cleaning of uniforms. Those incentives help attract candidates to an increasingly demanding job, says Barry Jackson, president of the Australian and International Pilots Assn., who has been a pilot at Qantas since 1987. "Young people these days prefer to become doctors or lawyers," Jackson says. "This sort of career path is becoming less desirable."

The bottom line: As Asian air travel soars, the demand for pilots will likely outstrip supply. Some airlines are offering perks to recruits, including free training.

Chan is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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