British Airways has announced a new major pilot recruitment drive – saying it will need some 800 new pilots by 2016. Is this the return of sponsored training?
On 11 August the UK’s flag carrier British Airways announced it was launching its biggest pilot recruitment drive in a decade. It aims to recruit some 800 pilots by 2016 – a quarter of its 3,200 pilots currently flying for the carrier.
Half of these with be recruited through a new Future Pilot Programme (FPP) – with BA posting a slick YouTube video to attract applicants to sign up. The remaining pilots needed will be recruited through other airlines and through a joint initiative with UK armed forces to employ ex-military pilots.
See the British Airways recruitment video here.
The Future Pilot Programme, open to 18-55 year olds will be a sponsorship ‘bonded’ scheme – or ‘golden handcuffs’. Applicants will be sponsored but have to find a £84,000 security bond – which will be placed with CTC Aviation subsidiary Airline Placement Limited – with BA acting as the guarantor. This bond will be repaid over the first seven years of their career with the airline. If the trainee completes the course – a guaranteed job with one of the worlds top airlines awaits them.
BA says that this approach will remove “the barrier of initial training costs” which could reach £100,000 and help them attract the best talent in recruits.
BA has selected three flight training schools to conduct the training for this scheme. CTC Aviation (Southampton/Bournemouth and New Zealand), Flight Training Europe (Spain) and Oxford Aviation Academy (Oxford and Arizona).
The launch of the FPP has been welcomed by UK pilots’ union BALPA (British Airline Pilots’ Association) which has been campaigning for airlines to open up the airline pilot career path to not just the affluent. It called the scheme “if not best practice, then a lot fairer than some alternatives being offered.”
A retreat from self-sponsorship?
Indeed this move is significant as it harks back to the old-style sponsored ‘cadetship’ routes – now almost a thing of the past. Indeed, since 9/11 and with financial pressures from rising fuel prices, intense competition to reduce ‘non-core’ costs from the low-cost sector, many airlines have effectively outsourced their selection, recruitment and training to the training schools and third parties.
Thus the increasing cost of flight training – (anywhere from £59,000-£70,000 for a frozen ATPL) has now largely fallen on students themselves – leading to potential pilots running up large debts. Critics note that other students training for highly skilled professions, such as doctors or surgeons, qualify as students and can thus access student loans and grants. In the UK, too, pilot trainees also have to pay VAT on their extensive course costs – an anomaly in educational, vocational training .
This not only saddles the student pilot with immense debt before they have even started employment – but also, some have argued, has restricted the pilot recruitment pool to the wealthy. Indeed some have even questioned whether airlines are actually employing the best and most skilled pilots. BALPA, for example, notes: “We believe that the pool of pilots should be made up from the most able and talented, not from those who can afford these huge fees.”
Airlines were aware of these pressures, especially at regional carriers, but for those at the top, such as legacy carriers, the attitude has to date always been: ‘We will never have a problem with pilot shortages – we are always oversubscribed.’ The attraction of big carriers such as BA, Virgin Atlantic etc and their ability to ‘poach’ pilots from other airlines below them, has thus insulated them from some shortages that flight schools and regional airlines were predicting would eventually hit them.
For instance, the increasing cost of flight training has meant declining intakes of students. Cabair for example, in 2000-2007 enrolled an average of 150 students a year. This has fallen by under 50% – just 65 students in 2010. (For more information see Con Air, Aerospace International, May 2011).
So is there a pilot shortage?
While Western economies remain in crisis, it is notable that around the world, there is still a massive and growing demand. One look at Airbus and Boeing’s backlog is proof of that – with much of this growth going to be in Asia-Pacific – especially in China and India. Europe and the UK in particular though is a mature market – so why is BA recruiting?
First – For BA in particular it is undergoing a new phase. With a new ceo, merger with Iberia in IAG and agreement with the cabin crew unions it has a chance to rebuild some of the glory days and become, if not the ‘world’s favourite airline’ than regain the ‘UK’s favourite airline’ badge. Key to this is fleet renewal and BA has both the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 orders. Pilots taken on now on, will be just in time to command the next generation of these airliners as both types come into service.
Secondly – demographics. Like many other professions the ‘baby-boomer’ post-war generation is now coming to retirement age. Although US pilots successfully argued to extend the mandatory retirement age to 65 from 60 in 2007 this cannot be done indefinitely. Like other organisations BA needs to refresh its workforce and introduce new blood – especially with the last major recruitment drive having taken place over a decade ago.
Thirdly – A traditional supply of experienced high-quality pilots is, if not dried up, then been reduced to a trickle. In the Cold War, the armed services provided a steady (and large) stream of recruits seeking a civilian career. But with defence cuts (starting in the UK from Options for Change in 1990) and with the latest SDSR, military aviation is being reduced drastically. Additionally this may mean that there will be stiff competition at the moment, the rise of UAVs and the non-pilot means that in the future airlines will have even smaller military pools to recruit from.
Fourthly – Another factor, missed by many observers, is the housing market. For large loans and to fund training, many pilots have had to take out second mortgages, sell property, or (especially if they are young) rely on parents or grandparents to fund them. The collapse of the UK booming property market will have obviously had an effect on this – making flight training for some not just very expensive, but impossible.
Fifth – Finally the move gives a much needed injection of some glamour and excitement into a career that although still attractive in terms of wages and status, has been hit hard by the ‘commoditisation of air travel’. The rise of low-cost travel, delays, air rage and removal of iconic Concorde, as well as locked cockpit doors have conspired to remove some of the attraction of an airline pilot as a rewarding professional career. That people still crave to be pilots there is no doubt, but there is a perception that software app developer, reality TV star or footballer have overtaken ‘pilot’ in the youth ‘cool’ stakes.
One-off or beginning of a trend?
In conclusion is this a ‘back-to-the future’ moment and the beginning of a long term trend for other airlines – or just BA itself that is at a certain point in the recruitment cycle? BALPA, it seems, believe the former: “We are pleased that the industry is slowly awakening to the challenge of finding new pilot recruits to take aviation forward into the future.”
It may be too early yet to say – but some things are clear. The first is that the airlines have placed massive orders for airliners. Air travel (despite current economic shocks) is still growing (especially in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific) and will need pilots (some 460,000 by 2030 according to Boeing). A current generation of pilots too is fast approaching retirement.
British Airways’ initiative to open up the profession of flying to more and more people who would not otherwise consider it due to the cost – is to be welcomed and represents an exceptional opportunity for those dreaming of a flying career. And this adoption by a major flag carrier also raises two significant further questions. If BA is now worried that it may face a pilot shortage – what does that mean for other carriers? Will they, in time, follow suit?
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