An unexpected travel boom has hit Asia. At any other time, airlines and budget carriers would jump on the opportunity to capitalise on this sudden boost. However, they are now struggling to keep up with demand due to a shortage of pilots.
The lack of pilots is not a new problem. However, this shortage combined with the travel boom highlights just how badly the situation has deteriorated. Bamboo Airways in Vietnam was the latest low-cost carrier (LCC) to start services this year and more are expected to join the race.
In Southeast Asia alone, LCCs have about 1,400 aircraft on order, compared with fewer than 400 for full-service carriers, according to CAPA Centre for Aviation. With the supply of pilots lagging behind, the airlines will struggle to find skilled cockpit crew.
“There’s a real crunch coming”, Peter Harbison, executive chairman of Sydney-based CAPA said in Singapore. “For new airlines, it’s much, much harder and it’s going to be a real struggle”.
It is estimated that global traffic for air travel will double within the next two decades. The Asia-Pacific is predicted to bear the brunt of it. By 2037, Boeing Co speculates that the region will require 16,930 new planes and around 261,000 pilots to meet demand. This means that current fleets need to double their assets and personnel in just over 13 years.
The cracks are already showing. IndiGo, one of Asia’s biggest budget carriers, recently had to drop dozens of flights through March as many of their pilots have exhausted their annual limit on flying hours.
Taiwan’s China Airlines Ltd averted a crisis in February by agreeing to improve working conditions after the pilots union, citing fatigue among other complaints, went on a seven-day strike.
Even outside Asia, airlines are running into problems regarding lack of skilled personnel. Emirates were forced to cut flights due to a shortage of pilots as well.
To avoid a squeeze, some airlines have set up their own academies to build a pool of pilots they can tap into. Some airlines are also “quietly” cutting the minimum hours required for pilots to be qualified as captains as they scramble to fill vacant positions, said Steven Greenway, president of Swoop, an ultra-low-cost-carrier that’s part of WestJet Airlines Ltd in Canada.
AirAsia has 375 on order for single-aisle planes, while VietJet has 216, according to the websites of Airbus SE and Boeing.
Mr Harbison suggests that one possible solution to ease the crunch is to have one pilot on short-haul flights instead of two, although pilot unions may oppose any such move.
“If you can have driverless cars, you can have airplanes that have only one pilot”, he said. “It’s a matter of shutting down an industry or seriously constraining growth”.
While this suggestion might alleviate some problems with regards to the shortage, it is unlikely to be passed by civil aviation authorities as having only one pilot in the cockpit is risky as anything can happen that might incapacitate the pilot. Having a co-pilot at least ensures a safety net in the most extreme of cases.