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Opinion: Airlines Need to Do More to Support Aspiring Pilots
There has been a significant amount of discussion recently on the topic of pilot training, particularly in regard to the cost of training and how aspiring pilots are expected to pay for it. With pilot training potentially costing upwards of £100,000 ($130,000) in the U.K. according to the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), it means that strong exam results, passion and enthusiasm are often not enough to see aspiring pilots chase their dream.
In a statement last week, BALPA called for the airline industry to ensure pilot selection is open to all candidates, in a bid to prevent those from less advantaged backgrounds from being put off. Given the pilot association’s statement, an important question now stands: “should the airlines be doing more to help?”
No Longer Subsidized in the U.K. and Europe
Many years ago, long before myself and many of today’s aspiring pilots started their training, airlines would help fund the training. Typically, airlines would offer its cadets a guaranteed job at the end for those who successfully made it through the course, resulting in a greater number of cadets undertaking their training.
However, in modern times with fuel prices and airline costs rising, airlines have had to make cut backs on where they invest their money. Unfortunately, this has meant that the financial burden has now fallen back onto the aspiring pilot in question, with many cadets now struggling to find the funds to start their training.
In the U.S., airlines have begun offering several programs to subsidize some of a pilot’s training. For example, Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of American Airlines and regional airline, offers up to $5000 in tuition reimbursement along with a guaranteed path to eventually fly for American. A similar program is also offered by Envoy Air, PSA, and Skywest.
A Growing Debate
Aspiring pilots told BALPA last week that the way things currently are leads to a ‘two-tier system’ in which you get two types of cadets; those from poorer backgrounds that are being put off by the burden of debt, and those with more advantaged backgrounds but less talent to fulfill their dreams. The pilot’s association maintains that selection must be based on ability to do the job and not ability to pay.
BALPA Head of Membership and Career Services, Wendy Pursey, said “Unfortunately, many aspiring pilots who have worked hard to get top-notch A-level qualifications will fall by the wayside because they are unable to fund their training. We believe this financial burden has a real impact on pilots and has wider repercussions for the aviation industry.”
Loans Are Not Enough
This is not just an issue and debate found in the United Kingdom, but one the industry is facing throughout the world. There is not a shortage of aspiring pilots, but rather a lack of support to those who wish to train. Given the financial opportunity to do so, many of these cadets would excel and pass all aspects of training, providing the industry with more great pilots.
As suggested in EasyJet’s latest TV program, “Inside the Cockpit”, the funds often come from the “bank of mum and dad.” Like many trainee pilots out there, I have had the support of family to get me through my training. A significant investment, which while not near the £100,000 estimate, has as expected caused strain within the family.
With many parents being forced to remortgage a house, or take out a loan against a property or asset to cover the cost of their son or daughters training, the financial risk involved of investing a huge amount of money into training, with no guarantee of a job at the end, is rapidly becoming a risk not many are willing to take given the opportunity.
More Than Just a Pilot Shortage
While airlines continue to face tough business decisions, with ever rising costs and competition, I can understand why they would not wish to invest significant amounts of funds into pilot training.
However, the industry often talks about a “pilot shortage,” with a report last month from Cowen & Company suggesting that the U.S. alone will need 87 new pilots trained every day. The industry needs to ask, “where are these pilots going to come from?”
There are simply not enough pilots going through training to meet forecasted demand, and one of the main reasons why is the financial burden. The simple solution would be to provide better financial support for future pilots.
I would argue that airlines’ investment in future pilots is crucial, as they are at the forefront of what an airline does. Airlines invest in new aircraft, services, and branding among everything else to help further and secure the future of the airline, so why would you not do the same with your employees?
The industry, and the airlines in particular, don’t necessarily even need to fund the training themselves, but instead can provide the support needed by cadets through the means of job guarantees upon successful completion, bonding or help with securing a loan.
Cadets also need to be made more aware of the training routes available to them. While the cost of training is significant, other routes are available at a significantly lower cost. For example, a pilot can take a modular approach instead of doing everything at one school, allowing some studying to be done independently and saving on some expenses.
Another option available in some countries is to do training while working for the military. While this requires a time commitment of serving one’s country, it does enable a significant amount of the cost of obtaining a pilot license to be paid for.
Unfortunately, these are not the routes that aspiring pilots first hear about. But with more encouragement and promotion by the industry, more information can be made available to those who wish to take to the skies.
Regardless of the situation facing aspiring pilots today, I firmly believe that with enough hard work, dedication and enthusiasm for the industry, a pilot career can happen for anyone. With that being said, it is time for the industry to take hold and secure its future by investing in pilot training.
With record numbers of aircraft on order, pilots retiring and the industry continuing to grow, a substantial amount of pilots are needed to fill those flight decks, and I don’t see them being filled until more support becomes available.
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