UAE airlines to recruit 80,000 staff in a decade

A surge in hiring will support carriers' needs in wide variety of ground and flight operations.

The country's two largest airlines are gearing up for one of the biggest recruitment drives in aviation history, with plans to hire 80,000 pilots, cabin crew and other staff over the next decade. The immense growth in hiring at Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways comes at a tough time for the industry in many other parts of the world.

In Europe, carriers have resorted to cost-cutting, which includes shedding jobs. They also face constraints in the form of environmental taxes and opposition to the building of new runways that would ensure continued growth. The UAE carriers' extra staff will be needed to operate hundreds of new aircraft that are on order. The number of aircraft being bought is expected to increase this month when representatives of the region's big carriers gather at the Farnborough International Airshow to announce their latest orders.

Dubai officials have already hinted at yet another order for Emirates, on the heels of an US$11.5 billion (Dh42.23bn) purchase of new Airbus A380s announced last month at the Berlin Air Show. In Abu Dhabi, Etihad is already one of the largest employers, with about 8,000 staff. By 2020, when all of its planes have been delivered, it should have 27,000 employees. Emirates Group has even greater staffing needs. The company, which includes the airline and a global network of ground handling, travel and ticketing agencies, will double in size by 2020 to a fleet of about 300 aircraft, from 149 today.

"It took us 25 years to get to 40,000 employees, but in the next 10 years we will double that to 80,000," said Rick Helliwell, the vice president of recruitment at Emirates. Factoring in current employees who retire or move on, Emirates will require more than 60,000 new employees over the decade, including 2,500 pilots and 20,000 cabin crew, Mr Helliwell said. Recruitment agencies say the big Middle East airlines such as Emirates and Etihad are always favourites among qualified aviation professionals. However, their staffing would become more challenging throughout the decade.

"The Gulf airlines have always been competitive employers and for many qualified personnel will remain an employer of choice," said John Barry, the managing director of Sigma Aviation Services, a global aviation staffing service based in Dublin. "That said, the Gulf airlines should not underestimate the challenges ahead of them in the coming years." Middle Eastern carriers are enjoying a short-term bounty of qualified aviation workers after the global economic crisis forced airlines elsewhere to shed workers.

"The downturn has allowed us to recruit across a range of areas," said Ray Gammell, the chief people and performance officer at Etihad. "For aviation specialist areas and head office positions such as human resources, finance, you name it, it has been easier. At the same time, our market position has allowed us to be discerning in who we take compared to four years ago." Airline staffing requirements follow a general formula. At Emirates, each wide-body aircraft results in another 350 staff being hired, including up to 20 pilots and 80 cabin crew. The airline currently visits as many as 30 countries a month to recruit workers.

Etihad's fleet plans include six new aircraft arriving next year, four in 2012, six in 2013, and 12 in 2014. Currently, 85 per cent of its new hires are being sourced from its new online recruiting portal, Mr Gammell said. It will cross the 10,000 employee mark in 2012, and then accelerate its hiring in 2014 when its new aircraft begin arriving in large numbers. While airlines in the Middle East are trying to stimulate the local market by hiring nationals, they have largely relied on expatriates to meet their staffing needs, offering packages that include housing, education and health coverage. They also try to promote from within for specialist skills, helping pilots certified for the Airbus A340 to become certified for the double-decker A380, for example.

Gulf airlines will increasingly rely on outsourced training programmes, said Mr Barry, "thus ensuring a transparent pipeline of pilot numbers in the coming year". However, the huge staffing requirements of big Gulf airlines are making it more difficult for other airlines to compete for the best talent. "The real pain in the supply chain will probably be felt more keenly by smaller operators and operators in different regions," he said.