With air travel demand rebounding as countries reopen to international visitors, aviation university courses in the UAE are recording an increase in the number of applicants amid a global labour shortage in the sector.
Emirates Aviation University (EAU), part of Dubai's Emirates Group, received 2,981 applications for its undergraduate programme for the 2022-2023 academic year, exceeding pre-pandemic levels of 1,638 in 2019-2020, vice chancellor Ahmad Al Ali said in a media round-table on Monday.
"This year we have a large number of applications, it's higher than any year before and that's due to the fact that the pandemic has almost lifted," he said.
"The shortage of skilled staff in the aviation industry has created a huge opportunity for students and even employees from other industries. Whenever there's a downturn, the aviation industry is always the first one to pick up at a very fast pace, so it's only natural that people will choose the aviation industry as a field of study and obviously they'd like to work in aviation."
A total of 350 undergraduate students enrolled for the new academic year. Another 250 postgraduate students are currently enrolled and registration has started for the next term that starts in late September.
The global aviation industry is struggling with a staffing shortage across all areas of the business, from pilots to baggage handlers, ticket agents, flight attendants and aircraft mechanics.
Hiring has been a slow process, compared with the pace of recovery in travel demand, as extensive background checks, training and certification takes time.
The UAE is a major global aviation hub, home to long-haul airline Emirates, midsized Etihad Airways and budget specialists Air Arabia, flydubai, Wizz Air Abu Dhabi and Air Arabia Abu Dhabi.
EAU, established in 1991 in Dubai's Academic City, offers programmes in aeronautical engineering, business administration, aviation management, safety and security.
Since its inception, more than 25,000 students have graduated from its various undergraduate, postgraduate, professional and research programmes.
"The UAE is a hub in aviation with four major airlines ... so it is only natural that people want to come here to study aviation," Mr Al Ali said.
Employment opportunities in aviation
Asked if the university was getting enough applicants to help plug the aviation staffing crunch in the region, the vice chancellor said the "shortage is huge" and that it would likely take "a few years" for the industry to bridge the gap.
Last year, 84 per cent of EAU's graduates found employment, with most going on to fill jobs at Emirates airline, he said.
Others have been hired by industry players such as plane lessor Dubai Aerospace Enterprise (DAE), French aerospace group Thales, aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, flydubai, Air Arabia, Lufthansa Technik Middle East, Dubai Civil Aviation Authority, the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority, Dubai Airports, Jet Aviation and the Royal Aircraft Maintenance Company.
"They approach us and ask us for graduates on a yearly basis, they're very happy with the quality of our graduates," Mr Al Ali said.
“We graduate about 400 to 500 students per year where they do fill some of the gaps, even in Emirates with aircraft maintenance engineers.”
Aviation management graduates find jobs at Emirates’ commercial department, sales optimisation and route-planning or managing offices across the airline’s vast network.
The aviation management programme has a nearly even gender split, slightly more biased towards a higher number of female students, while the engineering programme has a ratio of 80 per cent males to 20 per cent females.
A six-month internship as part of the programme for 15-hour credits helps students with hands-on training. Top-performing students get a one-semester internship opportunity with the Emirates Group. Nearly 600 students between 2018 and 2022 received an internship and on-job training with Emirates airline.
Among EAU's most popular short-term training courses is the flight dispatch programme — which is approved by the GCAA and the EU's Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) — particularly for students from the CIS and Middle East countries, Mr Al Ali said.
Aviation management and aeronautical engineering undergraduate programmes are also in demand, he said.
Looking ahead, the future of aviation employment will be shaped by advanced technology that will help executives analyse data and make the right decisions, with the university offering new programmes in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI).
"AI, data science and mathematical modelling go hand-in-hand and that's the future," he said.
Boeing forecasts demand for 2.1 million new aviation workers over the next 20 years, up 3.4 per cent from its projections in 2021, as air travel recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.
The long-term forecast shows that 602,000 pilots, 610,000 maintenance technicians and 899,000 cabin crew members will be needed to support the global commercial fleet over the next two decades.
Labour shortages and inflation are the two biggest issues facing the aviation sector as it emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the Airline Economic Analysis report by consultancy Oliver Wyman.
“Airlines have been at the receiving end with the fuel price hikes and personnel shortage impacting their bottom line," said Andre Martins, partner and head of IMEA Transportation and Services at Oliver Wyman.