Crews out of control

The long-expected pilot shortage has now begun to hit home, with airlines around the world cancelling flights due to a lack of crews, particularly in those countries experiencing a strong bounce-back in air travel demand after Covid-19.

Aircraft engineer
The looming skills shortage will also include aircraft engineers. Picture: 43 Air School.

In March, US-based JetBlue Airways cancelled 63 flights as it had no crew and it reportedly had another 117 flights to which it had no-one rostered.

This fast-arriving international pilot shortage will soon hit African airlines.

Despite their slow return to pre-Covid-19 levels of flying, African airlines will not be immune to this looming pilot shortage as they struggle to prevent their most senior pilots, plus engineers and air traffic controllers, taking up lucrative offers elsewhere.

South African flight school owner and former SAA training captain, Mike Gough, says that, far from reducing the expected pilot shortage, the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated it.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects that as many as 40% of US air transport pilot licence (ATPL) holders will retire before 2025. On top of that, Gough believes that many of the pilots furloughed during Covid have turned to other industry sectors.

Up until the arrival of Covid-19 it was believed that the African aviation market had the greatest growth potential, due to it being a comparatively young industry and servicing a rapidly emerging middle class. Yet Africa has struggled to meet its own demand for pilots and engineers and is becoming the training ground for airlines around the world.

To meet global demand, many of South Africa’s flying schools have successfully pivoted from training South African pilots to those from other countries.

Attie Niemann, CEO of well-known South African flight school, 43 Air School, says that 70% of its students now come from India, the Middle East and Vietnam, in addition to Africa. He also notes that there are an increasing number of students coming from Europe.

Some countries have specifically selected South Africa as a base for training their future pilots.

South-African based AIFA – the AVIC: International Flight Training Academy – was started to train Chinese pilots and soon expanded to include three large training bases.

Johannesburg-based Skyhawk Flight School has found tremendous demand from Egyptian students and owner, Gough’s, presentation to an air training expo in Alexandria was a huge success in attracting yet more students.

The pending shortage of pilots and aviation support skills in Africa is further aggravated by the brain drain of skills to beyond the continent.

As the skills shortage grows it is expected that airlines, particularly those in the Middle East and China, will further increase their tax-free salaries to attract African pilots to greener pastures.

Africa has traditionally had little demand from its local inhabitants for flight training. Some argue that the standard of maths and science education is beyond the capability of many poor schools. Further, the working conditions of a junior pilot do not have the prestige, or office hours, or security, of being a manager in government employ.

Pre-Covid, air traffic to and from Africa had been growing at roughly 8% per annum from 2005-2015, with regional and domestic traffic increasing even more. Analysis by Oxford Economics showed that the African aviation sector as a whole was expected to grow by around 5.4% per annum, a faster pace than most regions of the world.

South African flight schools have taken the opportunity presented by this growth in demand, and a plethora of private and public partnerships have developed to meet the future need.

A quick count revealed nine such programmes, of which many rely on corporate or donor funds, while others use taxpayers’ money.

However, there is much overlap and very little attempt to harness and coordinate their efforts. This is because each one is ‘owned’ by a particular entity or association, all under pressure to prove their individual corporate social responsibility and transformation credentials.

Gough argues that this creates a wonderful opportunity. He said: “Instead of funnelling billions into the black hole of South African Airways (SAA), why not harness and coordinate the ten or so pilot development programmes, so that the disadvantaged really can have a fair shot at becoming a pilot. We will certainly need them in the future.”


Guy Leitch

Guy Leitch

Guy is an aviation analyst in demand by South African TV, radio and print publications.