Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Airline staffing issues

And here are my thoughts of airline staffing options, possibilities and problems presented during a trade show. I was honoured to be accompanied by a few of our trade's elite. As usual, the journalist got my company's name wrong but hey, at least she spelt my name right! Obviously, by claiming our sector to be top-of-the-league, I cannot be angry with her...

LIZ MOSCROP investigates the changing demand for pilots in the rapidly expanding Gulf aviation market and how the recruitment industry is gearing to supply the manpower.

We are living in interesting times. Much of the developed world is in turmoil, with financial markets in chaos, house prices tumbling and food and energy costs soaring. Oil is barrelling off the scale and airlines dying off in droves. However, there is one area of the world where air travel is thriving. According to the latest statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Middle East carriers recorded 18.1 per cent growth in passenger traffic through 2007, the highest in the world.

This was the result of strong regional economies, growing oil wealth, expanded aviation capacity and new routes. It was accompanied by a 10.1 per cent increase in airfreight traffic and huge growth in low-cost carriers. The private sector is booming, too. Fiona Betts, MD, of Betts Recruitment in the UK said: “In the Middle East 80 per cent of our contracts are for business aviation. We supply pilots and flight attendants to the region. We do a lot of VIP work, particularly private families, rather than the corporate sector. Local royal families keep buying aircraft and constantly need people. They also tend to buy bigger planes, like 747s and Airbus.”

The runaway growth of business aviation has swollen the number of corporate crew coming into the region. This is a sharp change from a few months ago. Earlier this year global strategic management consultants AT Kearney warned that the shortage of commercial pilots throughout the world was dire. Industry experts foresaw a need for at least 200,000 new pilots in the next two decades. The number of pilots required in the UAE and other GCC countries would increase by 75 per cent by 2020.

Bill McKnight, associate director with AT Kearney’s global airline practice, said at the Middle East Aviation Summit in Abu Dhabi earlier this year that the extraordinary growth of the airline industry had put a great strain on attracting and retaining qualified commercial pilots. He said: “Investments are in place to fuel industry growth in the Middle East but the shortage of pilots is rapidly developing into a potential constraint on growth. The double-digit growth of passenger traffic in the past four years, and the expected delivery of 5,000 aircraft throughout the industry in the next five years, means more flights, hence the need for more pilots.”

Today, Middle Eastern airlines are still demanding pilots at a rate of knots. Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways all regularly recruit and local private operators, such as National Air Services or the region’s various royal flights, are constantly on the lookout. Emirates has 1,200 pilots from 60-plus countries and is looking to double this number by 2012.

At the top end of the market, executive charter companies are enjoying their most lucrative stretch ever. Companies such as Royal Jet, which last year took delivery of its fifth Boeing Business Jet to satisfy demand for travel to Europe, India, China and Russia, has achieved growth of up to 30 per cent over the past two years. Royal Jet and others compete fiercely with fastgrowing local airlines for skilled flight crews.

In spite of the phenomenal local growth, winter 2008 offers a ray of hope for Middle Eastern charter companies, largely due to the effects of turbulent financial markets and the collapse of several airlines in the West. Philip Markham general manager of Abu Dhabi-based Falcon Aviation Services (FAS) reports his company has no problems in attracting new talent. “We are doing all right for pilots at the moment,” he said. “We are paying a competitive salary with several on-the-job privileges. It is hard for European candidates to come here because of the strength of the Euro. However, our currency is pegged to the US dollar, so South Africans or crew from the Asia Pacific region, or North Americans find us an attractive prospect.” FAS offers its pilots 56 days on and 28 days off, so every
three months they get a month of paid leave. This is ideal for people with families. The company also offers flight attendants a similar touring roster deal, two months on and two months off. Its technicians are offered a comparable package. They also have the option of a six-week on/off roster. This is another enticement.

McKnight had highlighted that the job conditions for commercial pilots have changed dramatically in the past decade. “Global air travel has generated high demand while the advent of low-cost carriers has put a strain on pilot compensation packages,” he said. “Reducing the salaries and increasing pilot productivity takes a lot of glamour out of the job, particularly given the high cost of initial training.” According to Markham, the recession has meant that more pilots are coming on to the market. He said: “Six months ago it was a dry market but, because of financial problems, blue chips are downsizing as corporate fleets run out of cash. When airlines collapse, more pilots are back on the market. Embraer 145 captains can fly the Legacy 600.”

Captain Alex de Vos, general manager of Gulf Aviation in Bahrain, echoed his sentiments. “Here in the region there is not a big pilot shortage. Since various companies are in financial problems today, there are several qualified people around and the Middle East pays a better rate for many.” Jordan-based Arab Wings’ general manager Sameer Hdairis agreed. “It seems availability is much better than six months to a year ago. There is a large surplus of pilots in North America. The market outlook is that the Middle East will continue to grow and I do not feel that we will be generally affected by the slowdown,” he said.

However, one issue that remains is that the corporate aviation sector requires highly experienced people who are flexible and comfortable with dealing with VIPs. They are also likely to have north of 3,000 hours under their belts. Not everyone is suitable. Betts said: “Although we definitely assess pilots on experience, it is vital to find the right person, which is usually someone who has done VIP and corporate work. They generally have 3,000 to 8,000 hours, but total time is not the first thing we look for.” According to de Vos, experience is a key factor when hiring someone. “We only ever fly two captain cockpits. The stress level is far higher than that of an airline captain,” he said. The reasons are apparent. Business aircraft often operate into smaller airfields lacking the safety equipment associated with facilities serving scheduled commercial air traffic. Eighty per cent of accident investigations place pilot decision making as the primary cause. Cockpit resource management is an essential element in the training of all pilots and crew and accidents are often proven to have taken place due to poor crew co-ordination and not following standard operating procedures.

There is still a shortage of local flying talent. De Vos believes that the industry has suffered as the high salaries commanded in the technology and financial sectors have driven more local young people away from aviation. He is involved in flight training at the Fujairah Aviation Academy, a joint venture with British company Cabair. Currently most of the students find the prospect of flying a 747 or an Airbus A380 far more alluring than the private sector. “We see the odd one or two who have just graduated that are interested in the corporate sector, but we would not put a 250-hour pilot into business jet operations,” said de Vos.

There are industry-wide calls to develop local training further. Speaking at the Abu Dhabi conference, Maktoum al Maktoum, director, AT Kearney Middle East said: “The GCC must produce more local pilots to offset the challenges of recruiting expatriates to fill this gap.”

So how do companies find their staff? Generally by word of mouth. Betts said: “We network people we know. When pilots have done two or three years in their current positions, sometimes they are ready to move. We also go to friends and colleagues. Sometimes we get a captain and a first officer together as they function as a good team.” Hdairis, de Vos and Markham all agreed that behind-thescenes recruitment was the best method. De Vos said: “Getting pilots in the corporate sector is mostly by word of mouth.” Markham pointed out that Abu Dhabi has the highest GDP in the world, offering rich pickings for crew and technicians from countries such as South Africa, who are attracted by the tax-free environment. Consequently, highly skilled and experienced people are drawn to the region. The rest of the Middle East is a good place to be for aircrew today.There are also schemes in place to develop technicians. For example, FAS is currently sponsoring two young apprentices through its training programme. It looks like they’ll have their pick of jobs.

AT Kearney predicts that the GCC will be the fastest growing region for passenger traffic, with an average annual growth of 7-8 per cent between 2007 and 2015.

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