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Worldwide pilot shortage affects flight safety

As the Garuda Indonesia Boeing 737 approached Jakarta's main airport, veteran Capt. Marwoto Komar instructed his rookie co-pilot to extend the flaps to slow the plane for landing.
Indonesian police investigate the wrecka
Indonesian police investigate the wreckage of the Boeing 737-400 passenger jet at the crash site in Yogyakarta earlier this year.Bay Ismoyo / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the Garuda Indonesia Boeing 737 approached Jakarta's main airport, veteran Capt. Marwoto Komar instructed his rookie co-pilot to extend the flaps to slow the plane for landing.

Seconds later, the Boeing slammed into the runway at double the normal landing speed, careened into a rice paddy and caught fire — killing 21 people.

Initial findings from the probe into the March 7 crash suggest a misunderstanding between the pilot and his first officer may have contributed to the crash. And analysts say such apparent miscues are a troubling sign that the worldwide shortage of experienced pilots is starting to affect flight safety.

"Although all airline pilots are trained to the same standards ... there are certain intangibles that only come from experience," said Patrick Smith, a U.S.-based airline pilot and aviation writer. "(Like) skill and a solid familiarity with airline operations."

The pilot shortage is relatively recent. It is the result of extraordinary air traffic growth in the Persian Gulf, China and India; the rise of lucrative low-cost carriers in Europe and Asia; and the sustained recovery of the U.S. airlines from the industry recession caused by the 9/11 attacks.

"There is a giant sucking sound, luring pilots to rapidly expanding airlines such as Emirates and Qatar and the budget carriers," said William Voss, head of the Flight Safety Foundation.

"The result is that experienced pilots from developing countries in Asia and Africa are leaving in droves for places like the Gulf, and (those nations) are left with no choice but to recruit pilots fresh out of flight school."

Evidence of the exodus of pilots and mechanics from established airlines and national flag carriers abounds. And poaching is expected to intensify as Asian markets like China and India burgeon.

Around Asia, flyers from national airlines such as Garuda have deserted for better paying jobs with new and successful budget carriers, such as Malaysia's AirAsia, leaving companies no choice but to employ graduates fresh out of flight school.

In Europe, Belgium's largest carrier Brussels Airlines recently complained of losing an average of 10 captains a month to pilot-hungry airlines in the Gulf, and have requested government intervention.

In the United States, where thousands of veterans were laid off after 9/11 and left the industry, regional carriers have been giving jobs to first officers with considerably less experience than would have been required 15 years ago.

At some airlines, such as Northwest, pilot shortages have led to record-breaking flight cancellations in recent months. In the last full week of June, it canceled about 1,200 flights, or about 12 percent of its flight schedule. After that, the airline said it would continue recalling all of its furloughed pilots and hire additional pilots.

Figures released by International Air Transport Association show that global air travel will likely grow 4-5 percent a year over the next decade, though the aviation boom in India and China is expected to exceed 7 percent.

The Persian Gulf, the fastest growing region for both passengers and cargo, registered growth of 15.4 and 16.1 percent respectively in 2006. Reflecting this expansion, in the first half of this year Boeing and Airbus received a joint total of 1,100 new orders.

"You just need to look at the order books of these airlines, to understand that these are primarily expansion aircraft," said Gideon Ewers, a spokesman for the London-based, 105,000-member International Association of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA).

"Airlines such as Emirates, Qatar or Etihad are getting a new Airbus 330 or Boeing 777 each month, which means they also need to take in pilots at a phenomenal rate," he said.

That helps to explain why airlines everywhere are aggressively recruiting pilots. India and China alone will need about 4,000 new pilots a year to cope with their growth.

By comparison, Germany's Lufthansa — one of the world's largest airlines — employs a total of just over 4,000 pilots.

On average, airlines need 30 highly trained pilots available for each long-haul aircraft in their inventory. For short-haul planes they need less, between 10-18 flyers.

Traditionally, new pilots come up through flight training academies with a strict regimen of ground school and 50-60 hours flying for a Private Pilots License, then 250 hours plus a battery of tests for a Commercial Pilots License, which includes instrument and multi-engine ratings. A total of 1,500 hours of flight are required for a license that would qualify a pilot for the support seat.

According to the latest available figures, there are 1.2 million pilots worldwide. But most hold private or commercial licenses while just 14 percent have the professional Airline Transport Pilots License that allows holders to fly for airlines.

"(In the past) three moon landings and X-ray vision couldn't guarantee you a job flying a turboprop," Voss said jokingly.

In an effort to retain experienced pilots, aviation authorities in some nations — including the United States — are considering extending the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65 years.

"It makes no sense to force experienced, qualified and healthy pilots to retire while airlines are scrambling to fill those seats," Voss said.

Other airlines plan to moderate their standards, allowing new graduates to co-pilot with experienced captains. But this has placed greater stress on the command pilot who must fly multi-leg segments while monitoring a copilot's performance, rather than sharing the flying load with the first officer.

"The reality is that when airlines are short of pilots they may be tempted to roster their pilots up to the maximum flight time allowed by regulations," Ewers said. "Naturally, fatigue may then become an element."

Paradoxically, the worldwide pilot shortages are also making it harder to properly train new pilots. Flight schools now complain they are understaffed as instructors get hired by regional carriers who have lost pilots to expanding airlines.

The critical shortfall has led the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization to introduce a shortcut training scheme — the Multi-Crew Pilot License — enabling airlines to drastically reduce both cost and training time. In this program, a trainee, supervised by a pilot and co-pilot, will fly a wide-bodied jet within 45 weeks, about what it takes to obtain a driving license in most European countries.

Some pilots' associations have expressed concern that such quick-fix training schemes, where candidates don't accrue any solo flying, are driven by considerations that ignore the broader safety issues.

"The idea of some kid flying a 737 around Africa with 300 hours of total time is a bit scary," Smith noted.