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Pilots needed as Gulf aviation boom continues

Airlines worldwide need an average of 49,900 pilots a year from 2010 to 2030 as fleets expand Gulf airlines are facing a critical shortage of pilots to staff their growing fleets, with at least 1,700 new professionals needed each year to meet demand.

Aviation colleges in the six Gulf states train less than 1,000 new pilots a year, creating a significant supply gap that threatens to stall the growth of local carriers, a report from the Saudi Aviation Flight Academy showed.

“The problem, is that there just aren’t enough,” said Captain Samir Kohli, head of safety and aerodrome compliance at SAFA. “If we don’t start training pilots today, we won’t have the experience needed five or 10 years down the line to fly the new aircrafts, and in 20 years time we’ll see a collapse [of the industry].” Some 900 pilots are required each year in Saudi Arabia alone, Kohli said.

Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways are some of the aviation industry’s largest buyers of new planes with billions of dollars of aircraft on order.

Emirates Airline, the Arab world’s biggest carrier, has more than 190 aircraft on order from Boeing and Airbus worth some $66bn to support its ambitious route expansion. The Dubai flag carrier has said it will hire more than 700 pilots over the next 18 months to keep pace with its growing fleet. Qatar Airways has pledged to increase its staff count by 50 percent by 2014, while low-cost carrier flydubai said in March it would hire 600 pilots by 2016.

Airlines worldwide need an average of 49,900 pilots a year from 2010 to 2030 as fleets expand, yet current training capacity is only 47,025. Complicating the shortage is the declining number of people applying to train as pilots. Captain Michael Bautista, head of training at Emirates Flying School, said the number of applicants has dwindled in recent years and just five percent of trainees are locals. The remaining 95 percent are expats who will often return home after qualifying.

“Here in the UAE the airspace is also getting smaller because the airlines are expanding. And two thirds of the sky is restricted for military operations. In some airports like Abu Dhabi they also do not receive training flights from Dubai,” he said.

“It would help if there was more flexibility of operations in and out of each emirate.” Industry bodies fear a global shortage of pilots could affect airline safety as squeezed carriers fill slots with less experienced pilots, or turn to fast-track training schemes. A spokesperson from the International Federation of Airline Pilots’ Associations said the shortfall could cause “standards to slip” and warned of an increase in pilot fatigue among airlines struggling to operate with fewer employees.

SAFA’s Captain Kohli referred to the Air France 447 crash in 2009, which went down en route to Paris to Brazil killing all 228 passengers and crew on board.

Preliminary findings from the plane’s black box recordings suggest pilot error may have been cause of the fatal crash, after crew became distracted by faulty airspeed indicators and failed to deal properly with other vital systems. “You had a small failure of the machine, but it wasn’t a catastrophic failure,” said Kohli. “But the pilot that was in control when this happened was the least experienced one and the youngest of the lot.”

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