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The Coming Pilot Crisis – Impact To Be Felt World Wide

November 20, 2012


For many people – the guy upfront is assumed to be competent and trustworthy. Those millions who fly on the major airlines just assume he is a well paid and comfortable chap grey hair and years of experience. You buy a ticket from the big airline because it makes you feel safe. Stable, solid….

The truth is unfortunately not quite so clear and getting murky.

As the recent Colgan Airlines operating a Continental Express flight crash showed there are issues with contract flying. All the people on that flight bought a ticket thinking it was operated as a CO flight number (and their partners/codeshare airlines). The fall out has been huge.

First lets deal with the pressures on the demand for pilots.

The FAA has now changed the rules for flying which slows the intake of new pilots and sets higher standards for rest periods which means that an airline’s cost for pilots has to go up with different work rules and more pilots required. Pilot Fatigue is a real problem. (To download a report by the European Cockpit Association click the link – it makes somber reading). Over 4 years ago the FAA enacted a rule that raised the bar for pilots forced retirement in the USA from 60 to 65. Check out Chris Cooke a senior pilot at a USA based airline and his article in Executive Travel Magazine published by American Express. There is a huge bulge of senior captains who are going to retire in the coming year – starting next month!

While the US Airline industry has actually been reducing its requirements for pilots – it cannot accommodate the now large demand for qualified mainline fleet aircraft. A general trend is a slimmed down air force which has been a big source of pilots. The now bigger source of pilots is coming from the commuter carriers who graduate from the smaller RJ – Regional Jets to mainline fleets. BUT the US airlines have been shedding the smaller 50 seater aircraft. with more than 2000 of them leaving the fleets in less than 4 years. As each aircraft needs about 4-5 crews that is a significant number of pilots. Probably this could be accommodated if the US market existed in a vacuum. It doesn’t. While the US actual capacity has been falling for 4 years (source Airbus) the rest of the world has continued to grow indeed the centre of Aviation is passing from North America and Europe to the areas in the GCC, Asia Pacific and Latin America.

Even the use of contract personnel is not constrained to foreign airlines. A reminder that Codeshare airlines might have contract pilots and not be what you think it might be is palpable. I list for example a Delta flight i recently booked. Operated by Air France it said… actually the MAN-CDG flight was operated by FlyBE. Not quite what I expected when I bought the ticket.

The Impact?

Amongst other things is a large number of contract pilots. Other issues rise such as the lack of job security which all contribute to a change in the profile of a pilot. Its not that nice cushy job that it once was. Indeed the UK’s pilots are raiding the profile of the issue of both Ryanair and Easyjet’s use of contract pilots. Use of Contract personnel is not new but it is an increasing issue. Perhaps one of the most noticeable was the Etihad/Airbus accident in Toulouse in 2007.

There are many different places where the impact can be felt. The increased use of contract staff has been raised by Unions (fearful of their jobs) but also safety experts as it increases the requirements for oversight on the regulatory compliance teams. Something that doesn’t quite make the national budgets because its not sexy.

So just have a thought about the guy upfront next time you fly. Is he who you think he is?

Words to the wise. Be safe out there.



image courtesy of ABC


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