Rebuilding pilot workforces: Asia-Pacific airlines work to ensure recruitment pipeline
As Asia-Pacific airlines ramp up their international operations, their focus has increasingly turned to rebuilding their pilot workforces and ensuring that they have a recruitment pipeline for planned growth.
Pilot supply was one of the major long term issues facing the airline industry before COVID-19. The pandemic period stalled growth, and in many cases caused a hiring hiatus.
But now, as Asia-Pacific airlines look to restore their international operations, pilot supply is returning towards the top end of the priority list. Airlines are spooling up their recruitment and training again to account for short term and long term expansion.
With many other factors to consider, they need to ensure that staffing levels do not constrain their network plans. The examples below demonstrate how some Asia-Pacific airlines are addressing this issue.
- Cathay Pacific aims to hire 700 pilots by 2023.
- AirAsia intends to bring back all furloughed pilots by Feb-2023.
- Singapore Airlines is restarting its interrupted cadet training process.
- Australian airlines refill their pilot training academies.
- Japanese and Korean airlines did not cut pilot numbers during COVID-19.
Cathay has ambitious pilot recruitment goals as recovery accelerates
Cathay Pacific is one airline that experienced attrition concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, as it has previously admitted that it saw a spike in pilot retirements in the first half of this year. Cathay has launched hiring initiatives to recruit the pilots and other staff it will need for its expected rebound.
The airline said that it currently had enough pilots to run its operations. It started a recruitment process last year to add 300 locally based pilots to the group’s airlines. It aims to have hired 700 by 2023, of which 300 would be direct-entry pilots and 400 would be cadet graduates joining as second officers.
In addition, Cathay has resumed its cadet pilot training programme, with the aim of training more than 1,000 cadet pilots by 2025.
Cathay’s pilots have been operating under particularly burdensome quarantine requirements due to Hong Kong’s strict COVID-19 border rules, and this is likely to have been a factor in pilot attrition.
However, these measures were eased significantly on 10-Sep-2022.
Even though many border restrictions have been removed, Cathay has noted that system recovery will take several months, partly due to a training backlog for returning crew.
AirAsia and SIA have pilots on hand to support network recoveries
AirAsia says it has not been confronted by workforce shortages. The group had brought back 78% of its furloughed pilots by Aug-2022, and it aims to have reinstated all of its current pilot employees by Jan-2023 or Feb-2023.
The airline says many of its furloughed flight crew were trained in other parts of its operation, including AirAsia’s digital businesses. Pilot licences were kept active, and recurrent training maintained. This means that it can reinstate furloughed pilots as needed.
Singapore Airlines (SIA) said that it had retained a large number of pilots through 2020 and 2021 with the aim of supporting the ramp-up of operations when travel restrictions eased.
The SIA group has been contacting Singapore-based cadet pilots who had their training disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. These cadets will resume their training progressively from Oct-2022.
SIA has also resumed recruitment of new cadets, as well as direct-entry first and second officers.
Qantas is confident that it has moved past short term pilot shortage
Qantas and Virgin Australia reduced their pilot workforces in the early days of the pandemic. The airlines have both been confronted with temporary pilot shortages due to high levels of sickness absences – an issue that has affected many other airlines in the region.
However, both airlines stress that their pilot numbers are adequate to operate their networks.
Qantas has been receiving plenty of applicants for pilot vacancies, said John Gissing, Group Executive for associated airlines and services. Interest has been strengthened by the large numbers of aircraft orders Qantas has placed, including new models, said Mr Gissing during the CAPA Australia Pacific Aviation Summit on 14-Sep-2022.
The group established a new pilot training academy in Toowoomba, Queensland, just before the pandemic struck. Although it was not able to attract foreign students while borders were closed, it has still been very busy, Mr Gissing said. It currently has 150 students, 21% of which are female.
The airline is not experiencing a significant number of pilots leaving to join other airlines, Mr Gissing said: “That will still be there as a challenge, but we’ve got strong [pilot] pipelines into the various business units”.
Training academy has allowed Rex to be more self-sufficient than many other regionals
Australia’s Regional Express Holdings established a pilot cadet programme in 2008 after experiencing severe pilot attrition. At that time the airline recognised the need to have its own source of pilots, although like Qantas it also trains pilots from other countries.
This academy is once again training pilots from Vietnam and Singapore since borders have reopened, says Chris Hine, Rex executive director.
The academy holds approvals from five different jurisdictions, including China. The company sees a particular opportunity to tap into the Chinese market again when its borders reopen, Mr Hine said.
North Asian airlines did not make many workforce cuts, which will be a benefit during recovery
While many Asia-Pacific airlines cut pilot numbers, Japan’s major airlines kept their pilot workforces relatively intact.
All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) did not reduce their workforces due to the pandemic, although some of JAL’s employees were assigned to work temporarily in other industries in Japan where staff were in demand. ANA said it maintained its pilot recruitment through the pandemic.
Although borders have been slower to reopen fully in Japan, these airlines should have fewer pilot supply issues than some other airlines.
Korean Air also did not make any workers redundant, but it did require temporary paid leaves. The airline says it has a sufficient number of pilots to serve its network as it resumes. It also expects to have enough to keep pace with mid term to long term demand growth.
Rebuilding – and then growing – fleets will require new and returning pilots
Workforce shortages have already been a headache for the broader aviation system during the pandemic recovery phase.
Although this appears to be a greater problem in other labour groups so far, there are certainly signs that the pilot market is tightening. Only about 62% of the Asia-Pacific widebody aircraft fleet has currently returned to service.
So the real test of pilot workforce levels could come in 2023, as more flights are resumed and further widebody aircraft are reactivated.
More airlines are also returning to fleet growth plans that were interrupted by the pandemic – although buying the aircraft is only one piece of the puzzle.