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14 October 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned a global pilot shortage into a surplus. A forecast by the International Air Transport Association expects the number of passengers to return to normal in 2023.(1) This may signal bad news for those wishing to pursue a pilot training course in the near future.
The domino effect of airlines' massive lay-offs of pilots is a decrease in pilot training applications in Malaysia. One of the many flight training organisations in Malaysia has seen a 30% fall in enrolment at its eastern Malaysia centre and a 15% decrease in its western Malaysia centre.(2)
The reason for this is because the investment does not necessarily guarantee its returns. While pilot training is relatively a short course, it can be expensive and depends on the type of licence obtained, it could amount to somewhere around RM370,000 (approximately $89,000).(3) On enrolment to a flying school, student pilots must obtain a student pilot's licence from the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM) which entitles the holder to pilot an aircraft to qualify for a pilot's licence at a prescribed fee.(4) Student pilots can choose to qualify for a private, commercial or airline transport pilot licence with a prescribed maximum validity period as issued by the CAAM.(5)
It was recently announced that the training base of the Police Air Wing Unit has been recognised as a fully fledged flying academy, making it the first government agency air training base in the country.(6) The centre had received the Approved Training Organisation - Flight Training Organisation and Approved Training Organisation - Type Rating Training Organisation certificates from the CAAM.(7) While this means that the government will not be required to send its trainees to other private institutions for training which, in turn, reduces its expenses, this would also mean that other local flying academies may expect a further decrease in enrolments.
Therefore, flying schools must adapt to the changing times to ensure their survival in the industry and remain attractive to potential applicants. With the need for social distancing measures and continuous training, a cadet airline programme has introduced virtual training modules for regulatory and non-regulatory modules, which were approved by the CAAM. The academy has also introduced home web-based learning for recurring training of flight crews to keep them updated with recent developments and overcome operational challenges in such trying times.(8)
Perhaps the silver lining in all this is that airline companies practise 'succession planning' which requires them to replace pilots that will be reaching their retirement age. This affords an opportunity for fresh or potential graduates to be employed eventually, although it remains to be seen how fast they can be absorbed into the industry. The chair of a flying academy has advised that those looking to secure a job should look into air freight companies whose business have soared with the recent heavy reliance on online shopping.(9)
In 2018 it was estimated that the Southeast Asia region would require between 6,000 and 9,000 pilots over the next three years.(10) According to the 2019 Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook report, it was also further predicted that the Asia Pacific region would lead the worldwide growth in demand for pilots with 266,000 new pilots over the next 20 years.(11) There is a possibility that, post pandemic, the global demand for air travel may not return to normal considering changing perceptions on the necessity of air travel such as business travel, but that remains to be seen.Unlike the United States and Europe where the aviation markets are mature, Malaysia is still an emerging market.
Therefore, while there may be a surplus of pilots at the moment, industry players must ensure that there will be a healthy supply of experienced pilots when the economy recovers from the pandemic to meet the global demand. Aviation regulators and relevant parties can work in synergy to create opportunities for graduate pilots to build flying hours so as to fulfil stringent requirements of airline companies when they begin recruiting again. The industry that has once contributed €10.3 billion to Malaysia's gross domestic product(12) is now faced with a reckoning and hence, the need to revamp and restructure, to right the wrongs of the past and ensure that the industry remains viable even in tough times.
The harsh reality is that prospects of a stable and secured career for pilots remain bleak in the near future. However, soaring into the bright blue sky and the opportunity to travel have their own unique appeal which should triumph over the shortcomings of the pandemic. Hopefully, aspiring pilots out there still "feel the need... the need for speed".
(1) See here.
(2) See here.
(3) See here.
(6) See here.
(8) See here.
(9) See here.
(10) See here.
(11) See here.
(12) See here.
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