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Exclusive: US airlines poach locked-down Aussie pilots

written by Isabella Richards | September 9, 2021

There are new fears Australia could be facing a post-COVID pilot shortage after it emerged US airlines are now actively interviewing locked-down Aussies for jobs.

Aviation careers coach Kirsty Ferguson said she alone had received 70 enquiries in the last two weeks from those considering a move to the US, with Missouri-based GoJet and Utah-based SkyWest now organising interviews. GoJet operates services on behalf of US bemouth United, while SkyWest operates under a partnership with Delta, American and Alaska.

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UAE giant Emirates is also thought to be actively recruiting from Australia.

It comes as Boeing warned earlier this year that if current trends continue, the global industry will be short of 600,000 pilots by 2040, with the problem thought to be particularly acute in Australia.

Experts have consistently warned COVID has exacerbated this long-term problem through a combination of redundancies, early retirements and curtailment of hiring pilots into entry-level positions.

Ferguson, the CEO of Pinstripe Solutions, told Australian Aviation, “I can tell you that we have had over 70 enquiries over the last two weeks from Australian pilots considering the US.

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“On top of that around 20 pilots from South Africa, New Zealand and Canada seeking similar opportunities to fly in the US.”

Ferguson said US regional airline CommutAir is also open for expressions of interest from Australian pilots during this time.

Australian pilots with an offer of employment can live and work in the US under the E-3 visa. The visa lasts two years initially, but can be extended indefinitely.

Prior to the pandemic, many regional airlines in the US were offering positions to Australian pilots under the E-3 visa system.

In June 2020, then president Donald Trump announced a near-total ban on international immigration visas, which, while this affected many Australians in the US, did not include the E-3 visa.

Despite E-3s not being affected by the ban, many airlines halted their hiring of Australian pilots, as carriers around the country furloughed their staff to navigate the downturn.

Since his inauguration, President Joe Biden has overturned most Trump-era bans on immigration visas, and as aviation operations pick up steam in the US, carriers are now once again interested in bringing in talent from Australia.

Captain Murray Butt, the president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, told Australian Aviation the state of the local industry is making employees reassess their options.

He said he was “aware” Emirates, the United Arab Emirates’ largest carrier, is also hiring Australian pilots.

“I think it’s less than 30 per cent of [Australian] flights compared to pre-pandemic, whereas places like the US and Europe are getting towards 80 per cent.”

“Overseas have moved on,” he added. “The co-ordination between states doesn’t appear to be at the stage where we can have any hope that things are going to improve quickly.”

Earlier this week, a Senate enquiry examining how COVID had affected aviation heard evidence that  “thousands” denied government support would leave the industry.

“People simply cannot be stood down, indefinitely, without pay,” said TWU national secretary Michael Kaine on Monday.

“They won’t be able to support their families and so they will leave the industry.”

Captain Louise Pole, president of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, said in the Senate inquiry “wages will be very high” overseas, which could also lure skilled pilots away from Australia.

“As we’ve seen through other crisis in the aviation industry, where [pilots] have been unable to obtain employment in Australia, they will travel around the world to gain work,” Pole said.

Murray Butt said the crew shortage was beginning just before the pandemic, and if the “aviation industry returns quickly, [the] problem is going to be worse”.

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7 Comments

  • James C

    says:

    It’s no wonder pilots will abandon Australia… terrible government decisions, illegal vaccine discrimination by companies, terrible state governed border controls, unaccountable “experts” that don’t lose their pay, constant start stop lockdowns…. should I go on?

    I wonder what will happen to pilot wages if they “discover” that this covid-injection actually causes problems in the long term, rendering massive increases in sick days and higher insurance premiums for companies!?
    Makes you wonder why they are forcing pilots to take such risks with the travelling public. One crash, and your companies gone.

  • Uncle Sam

    says:

    having worked for a US carrier for the last 5 years i can honestly say it’s the best move i’ve ever made. i don’t know why every pilot doesn’t come here! the flying is great with a lot of variety, good work rules and benefits, things are more relaxed than in Australia and the FAA is a dream to work with after dealing with CASA! even flying GA here on days off is a lot more fun and way cheaper.. i don’t think i’ll ever fly in Australia again

  • Vannus

    says:

    Doesn’t surprise me that US carriers’ want to ‘poach’ Aussie pilots’, especially ex-Qantas, as they’re the best trained, worldwide.

  • ELT

    says:

    This is not a new problem at all. The worldwide shortage has been warned about for 20 years, and yet little was done about even recognizing it in Australia, let alone actually doing something until just before Covid. And if you think the situation is bad in the pilot stakes, its beyond dire in engineering. Within 10 years a significant portion of existing airline engineers will reach or already have reached retirement age, or been made redundant by constant cost cutting, with virtually no one to take their place. It takes maybe a year or two to train up a reasonably competent cabin crew member, five to seven for flight crew, but at least ten years for competent engineers with a licence. With the projected opening up of first domestic travel then international travel, expect over the next 12-18 months CEO’s to go cap in hand to Canberra crying poor for either training support dollars or a blessing to import engineers from anywhere. Its really that bad.

  • Delta

    says:

    Amazing, I know pilots in USA more senior than you that got laid off, with only 5yrs in USA you managed to keep your job all the time

  • Grand Old Opry

    says:

    James C, unfortunately for you there’s no critical shortage of COVID idiots in the US. Your skillset is not required. You should know that United has mandated all employees are vaccinated and those with exceptions will be placed on leave without pay. Delta is slugging unvaccinated staff an extra $200 a month for their health insurance. If you’re looking for a vaccination free dreamland I suggest you keep on dreaming.

    Vannus, despite the double sunrises – no, the world does not revolve around Qantas. As much as they like to feel important they are a tiny player on the world stage. The US regional airline SkyWest mentioned in the article is more than 3 times Qantas’ pre-COVID size. Almost 500 jets and they aim to have around 7000 pilots by the end of next year. I have not heard of a single ex-Qantas pilot at any regional or cargo carrier in the United States. And why would they be? The “best trained” pilots in the world probably wouldn’t want to join a regional or cargo carrier on less pay and have to work hard flying into places like Aspen on a LOC approach with no VNAV or auto-throttles. How these guys do it without the best training I just don’t know.

    Speaking of SkyWest – they are no longer taking Australian pilots, haven’t for a few years now. From what I’ve heard a few bad apples ruined it for the rest, using travel benefits to travel to Australia and resign from there, no notice etc. You can apply all you like but that door is closed. The article also doesn’t mention that SkyWest does also operate for United with far more departures per day than Commutair and the rest.

    Now to the thrust of the article, that the US are poaching Australian pilots. A load of rubbish. How quick we are to forget that even before COVID and all this, at one stage Qantas hadn’t hired pilots in close to a decade. The other main players were not too dissimilar. Every pilot hired to work in the US have to possess all of the requirements for a full and unrestricted ATP. So I guess giving pilots stuck at the charter or instructing level an opportunity to develop their skills and CVs in a busy and challenging part 121 environment is “poaching” now. Give it a rest. Most of the guys and girls working in the United States wouldn’t have been given the time of day by any Australian airline recruitment department.

    There will never be a shortage of pilots wanting to return from the Middle East, Hong Kong or even the United States, who want to work back “home”. Local applicants should realise by now that babysitting a C206 out in Halls Creek for years, waiting by the phone, is no longer a suitable route to airline flying. If that’s what they want to do gaining experience in the United States is a fantastic step up.

    So come on over, the water is warm. You won’t be the trail breaker so there are plenty of Australians here who would be willing to help with advice. But work hard, don’t be too quick to judge and remember – your performance determines if another Australian pilot is granted an opportunity as well.

  • Pablo

    says:

    But this is “fake news” There is lotsof talk about E3 sponsorship but no one is really doing it. I am an Aussie FAA rated, with heaps of experienceIN THE USA NOW and no one is hiring Aussies.

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