Middle East carriers to face post-pandemic pilot shortage, consultancy says

Airlines cut headcount last year but will need to invest in training and recruitment to avoid skills shortage

This photograph taken on September 16, 2019, shows Air France pilots inside an Airbus A350 flight simulator at the company training centre near Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport, north-east of the French capital Paris. - "Ready for take off?" "Take off!" The A350 launches onto the runway, takes off, before a "reactor pumping" phenomenon disrupts the well-oiled mechanics: we are in a simulator where Air France pilots put their skills to the test. "The simulator is a central tool in pilot training, at the heart of the training and safety issues," explains Eric Prévot, captain on the Boeing 777 at Air France and spokesman for the company's flight operations. (Photo by ERIC PIERMONT / AFP)
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Middle East airlines will face an “inevitable” shortage of pilots after Covid-19 if they do not begin to act now, according to Oliver Wyman.

Although the shortage is not expected to start until 2024, it will steadily worsen through to 2029, the management consultancy said in a report. This may affect other regions as the Middle East is a net importer of pilots.

“While airlines are understandably focused on addressing the immediate [effects] of the pandemic, preparing for the impending pilot shortage will be essential in regrowing and rebuilding operations in the coming years,” said Michael Wette, Oliver Wyman's head of transport and services in the Middle East, Africa and India.

“Due to the pivotal role that air transport plays in the economy, the industry will recover – and, with it, the demand for pilots.”

In the long term, the Middle East will need about 58,000 pilots, 59,000 technicians and 106,000 crew members by 2039, according to Boeing's Commercial Market Outlook for the region.

Before the pandemic, airlines around the world were competing to secure new pilots as they expanded capacity to meet a sharp increase in demand. The Covid-19 crisis reduced requirements for pilots as travel came to a near-standstill, forcing airlines to ground aircraft, reduce capacity and cut jobs.

The Middle East also faces the problem of an ageing workforce, with 20 per cent of pilots older than 55 years, it said.

The severity of the shortage is expected to vary geographically as the recovery of the global aviation industry will not be uniform. The Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East and North America are likely to account for the biggest shortages while Africa, Europe and Latin America are expected to remain closer to equilibrium, the report’s findings showed.

Around the world, the shortage is expected no later than 2023 in some regions, the consultancy said.

However, with a more rapid recovery and greater supply shocks, it could be felt as early as this year. In Oliver Wyman’s most likely scenario, there will be a global shortage of 34,000 pilots by 2025.

"Eventually, the impact of furloughs, retirements and defections will create very real challenges for even some of the biggest carriers," it said.

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Planes parked during the pandemic

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Airlines that still have pilots on their payroll, but who are on voluntary leave as reduced schedules remain in place, will have more flexibility once the industry begins to recover.

A number of steps can be taken by the industry to limit the impending shortage, the consultancy said.

These include reducing pilot demand by improving crew operations and productivity while driving down costs in the process.

Airlines have also been urged to continue investing in training programmes and pilot recruitment. They should also recognise the likelihood of increased competition, particularly for furloughed pilots, and actively engage their workforce to improve retention.

“How quickly airlines can regrow their operations will be guided by how quickly they can regrow their pilot ranks,” the consultancy said.

“Those that take action now increase the agility of the airline to capture demand as it recovers.”

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