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A ‘flying dream’ on hold

If becoming a pilot ranked as ‘difficult’, ‘challenging’ or even ‘undesirable’ before the pandemic crippled the industry, starting your training today classifies as a folly. 

The economic devastation caused by the COVID crisis simply depleted the chances of any flying job at the end of pilot training. And while COVID may be putting the dream of many on hold, it also offers an opportunity to start approaching this career choice with a sound dose of rationality and less emotions.

While some flight schools logically stopped accepting applications, others are still aggressively promoting their training programmes. A recent outlook by CAE Civil Aviation Group – a flight training provider – charts a global deficit of 27.000 pilots amidst the pandemic. But this outlook is hard to believe and difficult to be trusted.

The outlook presented by flight schools and manufacturers has always been skewed, driven by financial objectives. And it is no surprise that it continues to be so – even in the face of this unprecedented crisis. For years, manufacturers and training organisations advertised ‘a looming pilot shortage’ to hit the aviation industry in the near future. Industry insiders dismissed this as nothing more than a self-serving marketing tool to be taken with a grain of salt. Even though the pilot shortage never actually materialised in Europe, many flight schools benefitted from the illusion they created – selling a childhood dream, backed by a promise for a job. In fact, this business model was so successful that it churned out more pilots than the market ever needed. It prompted professional pilot associations to counter the narrative with own campaigns and awareness-raising initiatives, to allow young people (and their parents) take fact-based decisions for choosing their professional career.

 The economic reality and the state of the aviation industry are difficult for anyone to sugarcoat.

But then COVID-19 hit. So far, it has left more than 17.000 pilots in Europe unemployed, even more are still furloughed or working part-time. Pilots will not be in short supply for the foreseeable future, no matter how quick or slow the recovery is. All of those currently out of jobs are keen to get back flying as soon as they could. Others are already in a holding pool, as part of the redundancy agreements between airlines and their employees. On top of that, thousands of pilots already in training, will be graduating without jobs to apply for. Multi-Crew Pilot Licence (MPL) students are also stranded in their career with airlines withdrawing their employment offers. To put it simply: jobs will be scarce in the foreseeable future.

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) took an unprecedented move. It recently issued a warning to students against starting pilot training courses now. This unusual step shows exactly how dire the situation is.

With no clear end of the crisis in sight, and despite the arrival of vaccines, the industry’s recovery is anything but certain. Even the more optimistic prognoses don’t show full recovery in the next couple of years. The pessimistic ones predict the impact of the pandemic to stretch for even a decade. 

This doesn’t automatically mean, wanna-be pilots should bury their dream indefinitely. BALPA, for example, advises potential pilots to get experience in another profession and postpone training until the industry is in a more robust shape. The additional skills and experience gained in another profession could also be useful in the future as a fallback option in the aviation industry that is known to be highly cyclical.

But today the economic reality and the state of the aviation are difficult for anyone to sugarcoat. And perhaps this is exactly what our industry & its future pilots need – an opportunity to see through the flight school’s commercially driven marketing and instead to assess the true state of the job market and to plan accordingly.