Pilot Shortage in Australia?

Retired airline pilot and current ATPL/Type Rating Examiner, Gordon Bretag, argues that Australia does not have a pilot shortage and pressure should be applied to airlines instead of granting work visas to pilots. 

Aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus provide alarming figures indicating an impending world-wide shortage of suitably trained pilots to fly their airliners.

A shortage has already hit some markets, notably China and the USA where demand for pilots has rapidly outstripped local availability.  In both cases governments have enabled the recruitment of foreign pilots, with the USA in particular favouring Australians.

Other countries have for many years allowed foreign pilots to work on a variety of temporary visas and some have allowed citizenship after appropriate satisfactory service. Australia has done this in the past, for example during the pilots' dispute of 1989 the Labor government of the day admitted many foreign pilots and the Civil Aviation Authority (now CASA) 'fast-tracked' many of them through the local licencing system. However, that dispute was rather a 'one-off' affair and the easing of work visas offered by government was more about breaking the pilot union than any real shortage. The necessary number of pilots to crew our airline aircraft were still here, though many did drift offshore to better themselves rather than risk the 'scab' opprobrium of their peers.

Other than at that time, Australia has never had - and still does not have - a shortage of suitably qualified commercial pilots.

The CASA and ICAO standard for a pilot to act as First Officer on a large public transport aeroplane is a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL) with Multi-engine Instrument Rating (IR MEA). 

Almost everyone learning to fly with a view to making a career in aviation will graduate from a flying training organisation with this qualification after approximately two years' training. Those who cannot afford the extra cost of the IR MEA will typically seek work flying light single engine aircraft in remote areas or in the tourism industry, build some experience, then return to complete the IR MEA later.

An additional qualification, called the Type Rating, is required for specific large aeroplanes (i.e. any aircraft greater than 5700 kg). In most cases this qualification can be provided 'in-house' or via an external organisation contracted by the aircraft operator/airline. This training would typically take about four or five weeks to complete.  All airlines have other induction requirements that must be completed in-house and may occupy another two to three weeks.  Thus, any airline could take a basic CPL, IR MEA pilot and within two months have that pilot flying as a co-pilot on revenue operations.

Contrast this with importing a foreign pilot who already has the Type Rating and experience in excess of the basic CPL holder. This pilot must complete three CASA examinations to validate his/her foreign licence. Additionally, the airline will be required to complete some standardisation training and an Instrument Proficiency Check (IPC).  At best, all this could be done in two to three weeks, but actual issue of the CASA licence will take another two to four weeks while qualifications are authenticated (more on this later) and medical standards assessed. The induction process required is exactly the same for an experienced foreign pilot as it is for a newly-qualified Australian CPL holder.

In other words, there is no time saving importing a foreign pilot, and the cost saving is only the difference between a full Type Rating and an abbreviated version thereof with mandatory IPC. 

Now to cover the reasons why there is a pilot shortage in some places but not others.

After the end of World War II, airlines everywhere were able to crew their aircraft with the thousands of veteran pilots who had been released from military service.

In the U.K. due to a combination of high fuel costs, bureaucracy, a rigid examination system and geography limiting any great demand for general aviation activity, it was prohibitively expensive to learn to fly. The two government-owned airlines of the day - B.O.A.C. and BEA - recognised as early as 10-12 years after war's end that they needed to prepare for the retirement of their veterans. By 1960 they had established a flying training college at Hamble and commenced recruiting suitable applicants with no prior experience.  Another similar college was set up at Scone in Scotland to cater for the growing independent airlines. Within two years, graduates from these colleges were crewing large, complex aircraft. Of course, they did not rely entirely on cadets for their future pilot requirements but continued to recruit from other sources as necessary. When the veteran retirement 'bulge' hit a few years later they were well placed with experienced First Officers who could be readily promoted to Captain, while new recruits continued to enter the pipeline via Hamble, Scone and elsewhere.

The USA was different. There, fuel was cheap and manufacturers like Piper and Cessna were churning out small, affordable training and private aircraft by the hundreds. The FAA rules were easy to follow, bureaucracy fairly benign, demand great, distances vast, weather generally suited to private flying. So general aviation flourished and with it flying schools.

Thus, as the airlines grew and as veterans retired, there was a ready supply of replacement pilots. It only started to dry up in recent times when, after years of enjoying an over-supply, USA airline managements failed to recognise that their low entry level wages were no longer sustainable.  As a result, young people were turning to more lucrative careers. 

Now the USA carriers are addressing this situation by offering better terms and by sending recruitment teams to Australia.  Why Australia in particular?  They know we have good pilot training standards and they know that our local airlines are limiting career opportunities by imposing arbitrary excess experience requirements on aspirants. If our airlines were to accept applicants with the basic CPL IR MEA we would have no shortage here. This is not to say we would not lose some pilots to the USA; the grass will always be greener for some.

As it stands, anyone who has been flogging around in the outback for a couple of years and who cannot even get an interview with an airline here would be crazy to turn down some of the opportunities in the USA right now.

So, what do Australian airlines really need? 

Requiring minimum year 10 high school is irrelevant - if a pilot can pass the CPL and IR theory that demonstrates sufficient academic ability, though it would be reasonable to require passes in the more difficult Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) theory. Requiring 1500 hours of multi engine experience is also irrelevant.  250 hours as pilot in command is a minimum requirement for an ATPL, and this does mean most applicants will likely need to obtain sometime in the general aviation industry first. All the other ATPL experience requirements are easily achieved during normal revenue flying with any airline.

As for the claim that airlines are critically short of experienced people to fill Captain slots, I wonder at this. I have a colleague who has over 27,000 hours, mostly flying large jet transports. He is in current flying practice here in Australia, with all the relevant licences and certificates. He has applied to every airline and to Royal Flying Doctor Service advertisements.  He has not had so much as the courtesy of a reply.  He believes it is because of his age (he is 63). 

In conclusion, with the excellent conditions on offer in the USA, Middle East and China where they really do have a pilot shortage, many of the foreign pilots we are likely to attract will be those not good enough for the aforementioned countries. Particularly (and I have experience of this in my former life as a Chief Pilot) there will be those from certain countries who will bring with them falsely-acquired accreditations and claims of experience.

Instead of granting work visas to pilots, pressure needs to be applied to airlines to:

  • Open recruitment of pilots firstly to Australians who hold the ICAO and CASA entry-level requirements of CPL IR MEA

  • Drop arbitrary non-industry specific academic requirements, instead insisting on ATPL theory passes

  • Drop arbitrary flying hours requirements, instead insisting on 250 hours PIC (pilot in command) 

  • Require a minimum one hour flying skills test in a full-motion simulator

  • Establish as a matter of urgency, an Industry/Government joint venture flying academy, aimed at producing suitable future pilots


Protecting Australia's Pilots