Aviation is ‘turning the corner’ after the downturn due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Experts from Approved Training Organisations offer their analysis of the job market number and top tips for aspiring commercial pilots
After almost two years of very significant turmoil for the global aviation industry, this 2021 edition of ‘Go Commercial’ represents something of a turning point. High uncertainty and reduced air travel are slowly (and finally) becoming a thing of the past, and most forecasts point to a more normal future where the problem may actually be the opposite: not having enough aircraft and pilots to meet demand. Our analysis of the market shows why this may be a good time to start your professional pilot training, and we will discuss how to choose a school, how to prepare and how to deal with the challenges of flight training.
No permanent Covid effect
In terms of the job market for pilots, the big question that lingered ever since the Covid-19 virus emerged was whether the pandemic would have a permanent effect on air travel. While this appeared to be a realistic possibility even only a year ago, it now looks like the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Indeed there are segments of the air travel market, like the business jet sector, that have already recovered to pre-pandemic levels.
The only potentially lingering effect of Covid may be the so-called ‘Zoom effect’, meaning a permanent reduction in air travel for people who have become accustomed to meeting over a video call rather than in person. This effect is expected to be small, and affect only a part of the high-end passenger market (primarily first class passengers who travel for business). Overall, this may virtually have no effect on pilot hiring, but it may substantially affect the business model of some legacy airlines, like British Airways, that rely heavily on premium fares on certain routes (eg London – New York) for their profits.
Besides the almost negligible Zoom effect, then, all forecasts point to a healthy recovery in the medium term (the next five to ten years), which is good news for anybody wanting to train as a commercial pilot. Three main in-depth forecasts point to a return to growth. The first one is by Oliver Wyman, a consulting company with deep expertise in the airline industry. The firm expects that by 2025 global air travel will have expanded beyond pre-Covid levels, and that there will be then a worldwide shortfall of at least 34,000 commercial pilots, or about ten per cent of the total workforce. According to the company, the shortage of pilots will start to be felt as soon as 2022, beginning in North America.
Another encouraging forecast came recently from Boeing’s latest published Commercial Market Outlook (CMO). Boeing forecasts that, over the next twenty years, Europe’s commercial aviation industry will require more than 405,000 new pilots, technicians and cabin crew, and projects passenger traffic growing at a rate of 3.1% annually. The company also expects the global freighter fleet to grow by seventy per cent over the same period.
A third analysis which points to a return to growth comes from Honeywell, which expects business jet activity to pass pre-pandemic levels this year. In its latest forecast, the company says, for instance, that ‘ease of finding certified pilots appeared as a factor for the first time in 2021’. In fact, it appears that the rebound from the pandemic is already in full swing in the business aircraft segment: according to an in-depth article on the industry by CNBC, the fractional operator NetJets is facing such high demand that it is not currently accepting new clients ‘for light cabin aircraft like the Citation XLS and Phenom 300’. NetJets also reportedly said that ‘flight demand is the highest in [the company’s] 57-year history, averaging 500 flights a day compared with under 400 in 2019’.
Climate change and autonomous aircraft
So, the outlook is good, but aspiring pilots should not lose sight of the other trends that predated the pandemic, and that will likely affect the health of aviation businesses in the future. With the gradual reduction of the Covid threat, climate change will likely return to be the most important factor in the future development of the industry.
The threat seems particularly relevant in Europe, where airlines need to compete against a well developed high-speed train system. In April 2021, for instance, France banned short-haul flights where a high-speed train alternative exists. And in 2019 Sweden recorded a very unusual contraction in air travel, the first example in history of ‘flight shaming’ affecting the number of airline passengers in a country. So, while the expectations are for growth in the airline industry, one must remember that there will be some long-term (and likely growing) constraints on this growth, especially in Europe.
Another potential threat to pilot jobs is the rise of autonomous aircraft. Experimentation continues in this field and, if the travelling public became comfortable with the idea of flying with no pilot on board, this could have serious repercussions fifteen or twenty years down the road, especially if aviation authorities were open to ‘liberalise’ this sector. Similarly, a reduction in crew requirements from two to one pilot might also have an effect on the job market, although at the moment the concept is only envisioned for the cruise portion of long-haul flights (both Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa have reportedly worked on this).
The split between the UK CAA and EASA is a further issue to consider: not necessarily a hurdle to employment, it does however create an advantage for pilots who have both licences, as you will need a European licence to fly for carriers based in Europe, a market that is projected to be healthy particularly for low-cost carriers. If you want to have this ‘licence flexibility’, then it may be worthwhile to look at schools where you can essentially get two licences by following one course of training.
And while aspiring pilots should obviously consider threats to the industry, a realistic assessment must also take into account that the global economy is on a long-term trend of fairly robust growth.
Fitness and currency
Besides an analysis of the market, the most important thing to do for an aspiring pilot, however, is to assess their motivation, and prepare at best for a fun but demanding career. In fact, if you have a very strong passion for flying, all of the previous economic considerations have little importance for you, since the enjoyment of flying will be a pay-back of almost unlimited value. This is probably the single most consistent response that we received from the flying schools we surveyed: ‘follow your dream’. Having faced difficulties, including employment and financial constraints, this can in fact show up on your CV as a point of strength, one that requires working consistently on your physical and mental fitness.
The second important point, obviously, is selecting your flying school (or schools if going modular) carefully. Here, for employment purposes, it is useful if a school has a formal link to one or more airlines, say a cadet program. However, keep in mind that schools that do not have such formal links also manage to place their graduates with reputable airlines: what really matters is you and your skills, not simply the school you come from. It’s important here to visit and assess the fit between you and the training organisation. Some students, for instance, prefer smaller schools with a ‘family atmosphere’. Others, would rather train instead with a large training company. There is no right or wrong here, but there is a better or worse fit, depending on an individual’s personality.
Another fundamental issue to consider is how to fund your training, which may affect the speed of your training and the timing of graduation. Some schools have formal agreements with banks to help you finance your studies, while others do not−in this case getting a loan is likely to be more difficult, and somewhat of a lengthy process. If you find yourself short of cash and unable to secure a large loan, however, do not consider yourself out of the game. Quite a few schools accept course payments in instalments and, in the most limiting circumstances, you can always opt to go modular, meaning that you get your licences in steps, only if and when you have the financial means to train for them.
Some schools, in fact, explicitly aim in their strategy to make their training affordable for students with more limited funds. Pathway Pilot Training, for instance, says that ‘the very good value for money of modular training compared to the very high cost of the Integrated schools appeals to most with limited financial resources’. Modular may be seen by some airlines as a slightly less desirable option in terms of CV, but keep in mind that airlines are full of captains who trained on a modular route.
What is most important, however, is that you plan your finances in order to achieve two specific goals when you graduate with your flying licences. The first goal is to keep a reasonable level of flying currency at all times, even when the pilot job market is completely frozen: if you are very short of cash, try to budget a short SEP flight every other week, which should cost you about £2,000 a year. In addition, refresh your knowledge with regular study and, as Flight Time Aviation suggests, ‘use simulators and PC applications’, which can ‘help keep your mind sharp and focused on the procedural side of flying as much as possible’.
The second goal is to strongly freshen up your currency when airlines start to hire again. Ideally, in the three months preceding an interview and sim check, you would want to fly several sorties similar to the latest level of training you received (for instance, real ME/IR flights in addition to AQC jet simulator sessions). This ‘refresher programme’ would probably cost you about £5,000 in the UK. When you choose a school, do inquire about their options to help you keep current. In the words of Skyborne ‘responsible ATOs that offer skills continuation training and revalidation of qualifications such as Instrument Rating (IR) will best support a graduate’s employment prospects’.
Resilience is key
The uncertainty brought by Covid-19 has, once again, made it clear that being flexible and resilient is a core requirement for a pilot career. When the market is down, you need to be open to other possibilities, including not immediately finding a job but keeping your flying current with free flying at aeroclubs, for instance by towing gliders and flying skydivers. In fact, Bristol Ground School advocates flexibility not only in your goals but also in your type of training: you may want to consider studying ‘modular, if you can, to give you flexibility. This will also allow you to determine the speed of your training and to spread the cost. Another bonus of this route is that you can delay parts of your training if you need to.’
Another type of flexibility comes from looking beyond pilot jobs altogether, but still within the industry. The drone sector in particular continues to see a healthy pace of growth and some schools see this as an opportunity. Skyborne, for instance, was the first to launch a ‘unique partnership with Flyby Technology, the leader in UK drone training and operation’. Qualified pilots from Skyborne’s UKCAA/EASA Integrated and Combined Modular ATPL programmes have been selected to join Flyby Technology as commercial drone pilots, completing the company’s Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) training course. This is a new opportunity for commercial pilots that did not exist in the past. It means that, while waiting for a flying job, you can still exercise and develop your airmanship and experience, in a field that is projected to keep growing considerably.
In summary, 2021 appears to be a promising year to start training as a pilot but, whatever happens with the industry, you should still try to keep a long-term perspective on your career, considering it more like a marathon than a 100m dash. Do your homework, make informed choices and prepare carefully for the jobs that await you. And keep in mind that, if your passion is flying, you will not go wrong, no matter what happens.
Steps to an airline job
If your mind is set on becoming a commercial pilot – working for an airline or using your commercial licence in other ways – then you have to plan your route, and your first decision will be whether to go the integrated or modular route. Either way, the workload is intense and neither option is cheap. You will have to invest a lot of time and effort, and there are pros and cons to each.
You can start training straight out of school, without any academic qualifications, but airlines do look favourably on candidates with GCSEs and A-levels, and maths and physics will help you understand some of the knowledge you have to acquire and demonstrate in the rigorous written exams. Airlines are also increasingly focused on a competency- and evidence-based approach to training, demonstrating suitable aptitude and skills for the pressures of the cockpit.
Even before deciding which route you want to take, however, you should get a Class 1 medical. The requirements are far more stringent than those of a Private Pilot Licence (PPL) medical and if, for whatever reason, you cannot pass the Class 1, sadly you must put a commercial flying career on hold. It’s far better to find this out sooner rather than later. It may also be wise to get insurance to cover you, should you lose your Class 1 medical before gaining stable employment.
The fastest – but more expensive – way to a frozen Airline Transport Pilot Licence (fATPL) is the integrated route. It’s full-time and intensive, and often appeals to entrants with little or no previous flying experience. The minimum age at which you can be issued with a full fATPL is currently 21. The ATPL exam syllabus consists of fourteen subjects, including Human performance, Navigation, Meteorology, Operational procedures, and Principles of flight. In the UK, all ATPL training is in English, including exams. Training providers that offer integrated courses often have close links to airlines, so you could find yourself flying as a first officer for an airline within two years of starting the course. There are usually no guarantees, although some sponsored programs often offer solid employment prospects. In any case, do not get discouraged if you find yourself sending off your CV many times over, as that is quite typical.
If you already have a PPL, and perhaps additional ratings, the modular route allows you to spread both the training and cost over a longer period. Training can be tackled in smaller-sized pieces and completed part-time, while continuing your day job. It will be hard work as you juggle job commitments and training but it makes the costs more manageable, although it is still advisable to pay as you go, rather than pay large amounts of money up front – just to be on the safe side. Both integrated and modular training usually start with PPL training, then move on to the CPL (Commercial Pilot Licence), which can usually be completed in a few months, depending on weather and experience. After that, before you can start working commercially, you will usually need a multi-engine rating and an instrument rating. At that stage you will have reached the fATPL stage and can start building your flying hours to the 1,500 minimum for the full licence.
Before applying for an airline job, pilots must usually also complete Multi Crew Cooperation (MCC) and Crew Resource Management (CRM) courses. The MCC course is all about the way the students interact in planning, decision making and conducting generic commercial operations. It’s not about the technicalities of learning to operate a specific aircraft – that’s best left to the multi-crew type rating done on the aircraft/simulators operated by the employer.
Airlines may also request a Jet Orientation Course (JOC) and there is a new enhanced version of the MCC called the APS MCC, standing for Enhanced MCC Training to Airline Pilot Standards. This formalises the non-regulated JOC element and can act as the entry standard to a first multi-pilot aeroplane (MPA) type rating. The APS MCC, which is fast becoming recognised as the ‘gold seal’ by airlines and recruiters, is completed on a simulator, requiring forty hours of training (twenty each in left and right-hand seat, double the MCC requirement). This training also covers complex non-normals, for example the loss of hydraulic system pressure). It also includes airline orientated training and focussed training for high speed swept wing aircraft. At completion students are assessed against the eight ICAO competencies, with a grade between ‘exemplary’ and ‘satisfactory’ required to pass.
The simulator should offer a similar level of equipment to that found in a typical jet airliner, including GPWS, fully functioning autopilot with LNAV & VNAV, flight director, and FMS with twin CDUs. The weather dynamics also need to be realistic, enabling the instructor to create multiple cloud levels and types, rain, hail or snow. Night or day operations can be offered, with variable turbulence levels, wind shear and icing. Finally, since 2019 it has become mandatory to undertake a UPRT (upset prevention and recovery training) course before a type rating is taken.