For more than a decade, a team of aviation professionals with strong airline and training backgrounds has been attempting to establish the Australia Asia Flight Training School at Glen Innes Airport, a small airfield in the NSW Northern Tablelands. Consultant Neil Hansford was part of this team.
The little-used airport, located within new Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Barnaby Joyce’s electorate of New England, would have been home to a residential college for 600 trainees and all the facilities needed for ab initio training or type conversions for Airbus and Boeing aircraft.
Governments at all levels backed the project, offering grants and building sewage and water pipelines to the airport. Shovels were practically at the ready.
And why wouldn’t they be? All the forecasts show the demand for pilots will only grow as the number of air travellers worldwide doubles to nearly 8 billion a year by 2036.
However, the project failed to get off the ground due to what Hansford, the chairman of aviation consultancy Strategic Aviation Solutions, described as a lack of interest from the financial community in Australia to invest in the project or generally fund anything related to aviation.
“The fundamental thing that screams out is that it is nigh impossible to finance from Australian sources such as the big four banks, merchant banks or high net worth individuals, a commercial flying academy in Australia to have Australia take the leadership in the region for commercial pilot training,” Hansford told Australian Aviation in an interview.
“None approached could fault the financials and business case in general and all agreed that the market was very lucrative.
“They can all agree there is demand, but nobody has any interest in investing in commercial pilot education despite it being one of the very few businesses in Australia where you receive your revenue in advance.
“All they are interested in investing in is the leasing of the heavy metal assets.”
The frustration is all the more acute given Australia represents one of the most ideal locations for training pilots.
“Everything is there for Australia to be the training capital for the southern hemisphere – you can train for about 340 days a year, we’ve got uncrowded skies, a safe environment and a predictable regulator,” Hansford said.
“All the ingredients are there for Australia to be training 2,500-3,000 commercial pilots a year, compared with about 1,000 a year today. If there was some investment in the sector we could do up to 5,000 a year.
“And the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) licence is of such a high standard that it is attractive to airlines, particularly English-speaking airlines, around the world.”
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of Australia (AOPA), which represents the interests of the general aviation sector, agrees. Its executive director Ben Morgan said Australia had the perfect environment for flight training.
“There really isn’t a good reason as to why we can’t be a world leader in providing candidates not only for our domestic needs but for I guess our international partners overseas,” he told the Australian Aviation podcast in late December.
“Aviation continues to be one of those industries that attracts an enormous amount of interest and the demand and the interest in aviation is possibly the highest it has ever been.”
However, Morgan said the regulatory environment, a lack of investment and ageing aircraft were combining to act as a handbrake on the sector.
“If we have a working, flexible and productive regulatory framework, we should be able to attract investment, therefore we should be able to attract financial investment in aircraft, in businesses, in personnel and to get this flight training industry moving,” Morgan said.
The Boeing 2017-2036 Pilot and Technician Outlook, published in July 2017, showed there is a need for 637,000 new commercial airline pilots, 648,000 airline maintenance technicians and 839,000 new cabin crew members around the world over the next two decades.
The Asia Pacific would comprise the largest source of demand with 40 per cent of new pilots, 39 per cent of technicians and 37 per cent of cabin crew to be recruited in the region between now and 2036.
Hansford estimated there is a 20,000 deficit in pilot training places per annum throughout the world to meet the forecast demand from estimates such as Boeing’s.
The issue of pilot training and recruitment came to the fore in late December, when details emerged of the federal government’s decision to again allow foreign pilots to work in Australia.
But first, some background.
In April 2017, the federal government announced it was ending the 457 temporary skilled worker visa scheme.
In its place are two new temporary skilled worker visas. The first is a two-year visa that includes one option to extend for two more years. However, visa holders will not be able to apply for permanent residency.
There is also a four-year temporary skilled worker visa that can be renewed. This visa does include a pathway for permanent residency in Australia after three years.
The federal government also cut scores of occupations that were eligible for the new visas, compared with the 457 visa, including pilots and aircraft maintenance engineers (avionics).
And those applying under the aircraft maintenance engineers (airframe and engine) categories would only be eligible for the short-term two-year visa and therefore not able to seek permanent residency.
The 457 visa was introduced by Prime Minister John Howard in 1996 and allowed companies to employ overseas workers for job vacancies difficult to find Australian workers for. It also allowed 457 visa holders to have their family live with them in Australia on a 457 secondary visa.
Current 457 visa holders were unaffected by the changes.
After lobbying from the Regional Aviation Association of Australia (RAAA), and others, the federal government in late December added pilots back onto the list of applicable occupations for its temporary skilled worker visas.
However, pilots would only be able to apply for the two-year visa and would not be eligible to apply for permanent residency.
RAAA chief executive Mike Higgins said the former 457 visa scheme had been used to bring experienced pilots into the country as cover for the exodus of Australian pilots to overseas carriers.
Further, Higgins said it was not being used as a source of pilots for normal crewing.
“We are not relying on the import of foreign captains forever and into the future, it is just so we can get these first officers trained up to take their place,” Higgins told Australian Aviation.
“We still have sufficient numbers of right-hand seat qualified pilots. It comes back to the shortage of experienced pilots that is causing the problem.
“The pilots’ associations and the RAAA want exactly the same thing. At the end of the day we all want Australian-based pilots flying Australian-based aeroplanes in Australia. It is just a matter of this short-term hiatus and the visa is the only answer in the short term.”
When the 457 visas for pilots was abruptly scrapped in April, that meant experienced Australian captains being recruited by overseas airlines could not be quickly replaced.
At Regional Express (Rex), that led to more cancelled flights due to a shortage of pilots, according to the airline’s chief operating officer Neville Howell.
“The tighter regulations enacted in April of this year have caused havoc on Australian airlines,” Howell said in a statement on December 29.
“It is a total mystery why Australia would choose to deter highly trained and scarce professionals like commercial pilots, causing major disruptions to the travelling public in the process.”
Figures from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) showed Rex had a cancellation rate of 0.2 per cent in December 2016. The figure for all carriers covered in the BITRE report – Jetstar, Qantas, QantasLink, Rex, Tigerair Australia, Virgin Australia and Virgin Australia Regional Airlines – was 1.8 per cent
Fast forward to December 2017 (the most recent month for which figures were available at the time of publication) and Rex’s cancellation rate had risen to 1.0 per cent. However, the figure for all carriers was down to 1.5 per cent.
While the RAAA’s Higgins gave the government credit for its change of heart, the association was continuing to lobby for pilots to be eligible for the four-year visa, rather than the two‑year visa.
“The driving force behind the push for four-year visas for pilots is two-fold,” Higgins said.
“Firstly, it takes about four years of experience in the right-hand seat before you can sit in the left-hand seat and gain a command and during that four-year period there is a training and mentoring relationship that is very important and we would like to see that relationship unbroken so that’s why we are requesting four-year visas.
“Secondly, the sort of experienced captains we’re looking for have obviously been flying for a couple of decades and are more likely to have families established and so forth, so to ask them to pack up and come halfway around the world for four years is much more attractive than say a two-year period.”
Despite setting up the Australian Airline Pilot Academy in Wagga Wagga in 2007, Howell said Rex had conducted recruitment drives in South Africa, the United Kingdom and United States at various times to supplement its pilot body. The 457 visas allowed the airline the flexibility to recruit pilots when needed.
“Rex speaks with good authority when we say that the need for good experienced pilots cannot be met locally,” Howell said.
Australia’s two biggest airline groups Qantas and Virgin Australia have stepped up their recruiting efforts in recent times and this visa change was understood to be unlikely to have a significant impact on their operations.
At Virgin Australia, the airline has been reducing the number of aircraft types in its fleet, with all Embraer E190s withdrawn by early February and up to eight ATR 72 turboprops also headed for the exits.
While the fleet reduction had placed some constraints on pilot numbers, given some were undergoing conversion courses for new types, this has now mostly ended.
VIDEO – A Virgin Australia pilot cadet program promotional video
A Virgin Australia spokesperson said the airline had a range of entry points for pilots, including its cadetship program in partnership with Flight Training Adelaide that has been running since 2012.
The cadetship program’s intake was being increased from 12 people in 2017 to 18 in 2018.
Meanwhile, experienced pilots are able to join the company as first (737/Fokker 100) or second officers (777) on its jet fleet or as a captain or first officer on its turboprop fleet.
“We have a range of measures in place to help manage the number of pilots required to operate our fleet and flight schedules,” a Virgin Australia spokesperson told Australian Aviation.
“Virgin Australia welcomes the federal government’s review of the short-term skilled occupation list, particularly in relation to how this is impacting on pilot shortages in Australia.”
Qantas has also been on a pilot recruitment drive as it inducts the Boeing 787-9 into its fleet.
The airline announced in February 2016 plans to hire 170 new pilots over the following three years to support growth, its first significant recruitment of pilots since 2009.
Its regional arm QantasLink has also been recruiting, as more experienced pilots in its ranks moved across to the “mainline” Qantas jet fleet.
In December 2017, QantasLink launched a partnership where students at five universities – Griffith University, RMIT University, the University of NSW, the University of Southern Queensland and Swinburne University of Technology – can apply for a 12-week airline transition course at the end of their degree.
Called the Qantas Future Pilot Program, the students would be mentored by QantasLink pilots and trainers to be qualified first officers on Q400 and Q300 turboprops.
Qantas is also focusing on diversity in its search for new pilots, recently launching the Nancy Bird Walton initiative.
Named after the pioneering Australian aviatrix, the initiative aims to increase the number of qualified women in its pilot recruitment programs to 20 per cent in 2018 and doubling it the following year.
“Our goal is to reach an intake that is 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women within a decade,” Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce wrote in the January edition of the airline’s inflight magazine.
“We know it’s not going to be easy to reach our targets. Today, women make up only 20 per cent of aviation students across Australian universities. And the number of women and girls studying science, technology, engineering and maths subjects shows that not enough see careers in technical roles as an option.
“We need to change that mindset.”
Pilot groups for both the major carriers were lukewarm on the visa changes.
Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) president Captain Murray Butt said the use of foreign pilots was a short-term fix and called on the federal government to establish a white paper on pilot training in Australia. AIPA represents about 2,000 Qantas Group pilots.
The Virgin Independent Pilots Association (VIPA), which represents Virgin Australia group pilots, also backed AIPA’s push for a white paper on the “serious and growing shortage of pilots”.
VIPA president John Lyons said the visa reversal for foreign pilots was not a long-term answer to the question of pilot numbers.
“The problem is systemic in that the traditional sources of recruitment for airlines has dried up. General aviation has been forced into decline largely because of an over regulated, punitive system enforced by CASA and the flow of experienced RAAF pilots has dwindled,” Captain Lyons said in a statement.
“Thirty years ago the general aviation industry was thriving. It employed a lot of pilots and licenced engineers which provided an experienced source of recruitment for the airlines. Stifling regulatory changes and prohibitive costs have forced many general aviation operators and flying schools out of business.”
The director of specialist careers consultancy Pinstripe Solutions Kirsty Ferguson said more needed to be done to offer newly qualified pilots the opportunities to progress through the ranks once they had completed their studies.
“The gap is that while we have training facilities here for local pilots, we don’t have pathways from the flying schools and from the universities through to the regionals or through to the mainline carriers or even into general aviation,” Ferguson told the Australian Aviation podcast in late December.
“It is an industry issue that we have to create these pathways.”
AOPA’s Morgan said there needed to be a partnership between the regional, domestic and international airlines with the general aviation industry.
“Nobody wants to see local jobs being given away to foreign candidates,” Morgan said.
“It’s an accepted norm that if we have got the demand locally, if we’ve got young Australians who are looking to break into the industry, we should be cultivating, fostering and nurturing those people through to employment.
“What we really need in Australia is a solid partnership between the regional, domestic and international airlines with the general aviation industry.”
This feature article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Australian Aviation.