In Africa, poachers are after a new kind of game—commercial jetliner pilots.
It is not unheard of for the captain of an African carrier to shut down the engines of his plane after a flight and quite literally walk off the job for a better-paying one with another airline in Asia.
Philippine Airlines reportedly lost 75 pilots to other airlines over the past three years. China is snatching pilots from Brazil and just about any place else they can be found. India may be even hungrier for pilots than China. The Indian government finally drew up a code of conduct requiring pilots to give adequate notice before leaving for another airline.
As Boeing Co. and Airbus sell more planes than ever, many of those planes are headed to parts of the world where airlines are desperate for pilots. “They are begging for pilots,” said Sherry Carbary, president of Alteon, Boeing’s commercial jetliner training arm.
With such demand, Alteon is testing a programme that can cut training time in half. Although one of the world’s foremost aviation bodies established the framework for the programme, it is not without controversy. Students will spend more time in ground-based simulators and less time actually flying a plane—and that has critics worried.
Alteon, which stresses that safety won’t be compromised, has some rather startling data to show just how bad the pilot shortage is. With the world’s jetliner fleet expected to double over the next 20 years, Alteon estimates that more than 17,000 new pilots will be needed each year just for the new planes that will be delivered from 2006 to 2025. Even more will be needed to fill the seats of retiring pilots.
According to Alteon’s forecast, India has fewer than 3,000 pilots today, but will need more than 12,000 by 2025. China will need an average of 2,162 new pilots a year, or 43,240 by 2025. But there’s no shortage of commercial pilots in the US. In fact, there is a pilot surplus. US airlines laid off more than 10,000 pilots after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Many remain out of work, though some are taking jobs in Asia, where the shortage of pilots is most severe.
That could change, however. US airlines are starting to order new planes again, and both Boeing and Airbus forecast the North American market will be bigger than even China or India over the next two decades.
Training pilots to fly commercial jetliners is difficult, expensive and time-consuming. China, India and many other countries that have a lot of new planes coming from Boeing and Airbus, as well as from the manufacturers of smaller regional jets, are not able to train enough pilots at home.
Boeing’s Alteon has nearly two dozen training centres around the world. But it can take as long as three years to train someone who has never flown any kind of plane to fly commercial jets as first officer. So the industry is closely watching what’s happening at Alteon’s flight training school in Brisbane, Australia.
The framework for the new programme, the Multi-Crew Pilots Licence (MPL), was established last year by the International Civil Aviation Organization (Icao), a United Nations agency. Alteon’s Carbary said Boeing worked with regulators and customers to “enhance” what Icao proposed. The aim is to teach students from the beginning the skills they need to fly in a multicrew jetliner. The Brisbane students will spend a lot of their training in a Boeing 737-800 simulator, rather than accumulating flight time in a single-engine Cessna 152. They will rotate their time in the simulator as captain, first officer and as an observer.
Two airlines in China each supplied three cadets to the programme. The goal is to reduce the time it takes to be trained as a first officer to as little as 12-18 months. And that’s for someone with no previous experience.
When their training is over, the six cadets will return to their respective airlines, China Eastern and Xiamen. Alteon will continue to monitor their progress for several years to compare their performance with first officers who come up through the usual pilot-training process. Carbary described the Brisbane programme as a “beta test”. “If this does not work, then we won’t proceed,” she said. “But I’m confident the industry is going to move in this direction.”
But just how safe is this approach to pilot training? “I worry,” said John Nance of Tacoma, noted aviation writer and a former 737 pilot for Alaska Airlines. Nance is aviation safety consultant for ABC News. He said similar approaches to training commercial pilots have been tried before in which the emphasis is put on simulator time. What happened, he said, is that students did well in the simulator but were not prepared for what it was like inside the cockpit of a commercial jetliner when something went terribly wrong and the plane started bouncing around.
In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration requires (FAA) 250 flight hours to get a commercial licence. Most first officers would have many more hours than that. Icao’s MPL programme requires students to receive 70 hours of actual flight time, 10 hours of which must be solo. But Alteon has gone beyond what Icao requires, said Marsha Bell, marketing director for Alteon.
Alteon’s cadets will spend at least 83 hours in a single-engine Diamond 40 plane. They will also spend 117 hours in simulators, first in a Diamond 40 simulator and then in the Boeing 737-800 simulator. The cadets will be required to complete 33 missions each in the Boeing simulator as captain, 33 missions as first officer and 33 missions as the observer. Each training mission will last about two hours.
The training is not over once the cadets complete the Alteon programme. Before they can receive an MPL certificate, they must make a dozen takeoffs and landings in the same type of commercial jetliner that they will be flying for an airline as first officer.
Of course, they would still not be able to be the pilot in command of a small Cessna—unless they had a private pilot’s licence. The MPL programme has been embraced by a number of airlines and regulatory bodies, but not by FAA.
“...It is all about safety first. We are trying to provide a programme that is not only equally safe (as pilot training programs today), but more safe. One accident is too many,” said Carbary.