Prior to the world losing its marbles over a particular ‘flu strain, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had some interesting stats, that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) concurred with.

Mike Gough

IT WAS CALCULATED THAT by 2024 around 42% of the entire US Airline Transport Pilot workforce would have retired (pre-madness). That in itself is a somewhat scary statistic. As airlines around the world have subsequently been caught up in something that they had no real contingency plan to deal with, short term panic replaced long term sensibility, and workforces were slashed while aircraft were grounded.

This effectively kicked that 2024 tin can closer into view, as thousands of over 55 age group pilots and technical staff were told to go fishing.

The fragility of our grasp on the complexities of maintaining a competent, current and licenced pilot work force have been laid bare for the entire industry to see. We are delicate creatures in this regard, and the training and assessing that is required to bring us back ‘up to speed’ is much more of a task than has been imagined.

One additional problem that was not specifically planned for is that a lot of the newly settled-in fishermen have no intention of returning to the highly demanding arena of airline flying.

From my own perspective, having been outside of the Airbus cockpit for just over a year now, I can attest to some significant adaptations to ‘normal’ life, and it’s not entirely unpleasant in a few ways.

‘more than paperwork is required to be an ace on the flight deck’

Despite keeping myself busy in the A320 simulator, doing regular licence revalidations for ex-colleagues in the same boat as me, I am without a doubt on the back foot so to speak in terms of competency at airline level. Although still type-recent, there is more than the paperwork that is required for licence validity to be considered an ace on the flight deck.

There are, however, a few positives that have made this time in limbo not altogether a bad thing.

My sleeping patterns have returned to normal. I can write my own roster. I actually get weekends off, or for that matter, pretty much whenever I need time do something. It is now not a major tug-of-war with some scheduling department.

After twenty-four years of non-stop flying, simulator, refresher courses, revalidations and oversights, I have become aware of what a pressure cooker environment  commercial aviation is. I’m significantly less stressed and fatigued, more relaxed and somewhat enjoying my newfound ‘normality’.

Fortunately, building up a side-line business over the past 14 years has proven to be the best thing I could have done outside of the airline, despite the fact this aspect added significantly to my then-workload.

The current success of my flight school has without a doubt eased the transition back to ‘civilian’ life – something which a lot of my ex-colleagues don’t have, and this gives me a different view of life on the ‘outside’.

Thus, I can relate immediately to the reluctance of many of the early retirees of this industry to even consider getting back into the maelstrom of demands of the airline world.

I am certainly not alone with this sentiment, within my group of friends, as many are being recalled by their employers, mainly in the Middle East. The dread with which some approach this return is palpable, and the draw of the significant salary seems to be the only carrot on the airline’s stick.

The joy of flying seems a little lost.

Don’t get me wrong – I will be back in an airline cockpit like a shot as soon as the best opportunity presents itself.

Absence does make the fart get a Honda (spoonerism intended), but the luxury of a soft landing provides perspective. We tend to remember the exhilaratingly epic act of strapping an Airbus to one’s posterior in isolation to all the other stuff that goes with it.

So now that the Cosmos has given us some thinking time, how would this affect the so-called recovery of this industry post-pandemic?

It does not bode well. Many of those that have unexpectedly been put out to pasture are the senior experienced instructors, examiners and check airmen, and by default, a significant chunk of training (and recovery) capacity is permanently lost.

As I can personally attest to, there is no shortage of keen aspiring aviators coming through the ab-initio training system. However, as a result of the pandemic, the traditional early-experience opportunities are – for the time being – much reduced. Charter and commuter airline avenues have taken a hammering and even though they will start to perk up in the next year or two, the inertia through the ‘system’ is gone.

Overall, we can expect to see a significant decrease in experience levels globally on the flight deck. Not such a big deal, if the training and checking is where it should be, but I get the feeling that is already compromised.

IATA has produced the accompanying graphic that gives a quick snapshot of where we were, and where our current trajectory is headed. I can only guess at the reasons why Africa doesn’t feature as the line that represents Asia is not exactly stratospheric.

Essentially, as of the end of September 2021, global international traffic is at 41% of pre-train-smash levels, with North America pretty much back at 100% – and this is where the next crunch is about to manifest itself, with regard to the brought-forward 2024 dire prediction as mentioned at the beginning of this piece.

Whichever way you would like to look at the process of producing a competent, airline ready pilot, we are all about to see a yawning gap of about three to five years, as we play catch-up with all the many processes required to get an individual from street into right seat.

This is specifically pertinent considering how many cadet and airline funded training institutions have closed down around the world.

It is interesting to note the January and February 2020 trend on this graphic. Imagine where we would be if that bat in Wuhan was properly cooked prior to its consumption….

The slumbering Asian dragon will re-awaken – with a vengeance – when the inter-state political indecision as to how to deal with the current issues are resolved. I do believe when that happens, demand for all airline technical crew and staff will reach potentially dramatic, and cheese hole aligning levels.

The immediate solution is to take advantage of the current crop of current and available crew. This is happening at present (and will be exacerbated in the near future), in terms of pushing the flight and duty limitations and retirement age to the limit, and beyond.

As per all advances of our airline operating infrastructure, this will probably have to be written in blood.

Locally, my ex-employer offered me a position (less than 24 hours after retrenchment) as a First Officer, as it occurred to them that they required additional Designated Flight Examiners on Airbus and hoped to use my DFE status through the back door.

Needless to say, I told them what they could do with that idea.

In the meantime, I will continue cheerfully where I am.

The global crazy-dust must settle.

I’m not into fishing, so I’ll do what I can do to continue to launch careers at Lanseria while enjoying being my own boss.

For now.

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