Crew shortfall threatens rapid growth of Gulf airlines

Middle East region needs 36,000 pilots to match fleet growth.
NEWS, Aviation


The Gulf’s three largest airlines are facing a critical shortage of pilots and technical crew that threatens to stall the rapid growth of their fleets, aviation experts said.

Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways could be forced to go head-to-head in recruitment drives to attract staff in a bid to keep their ambitious expansion plans on track.

“All three of these carriers are going to be fighting each other to get the best pilots they can,” said Saj Ahmad, a London-based aviation analyst.

“The one thing that is missing [from their plans] is pilots and nobody seems to be generating an answer as to where they are going to come from. It will be a struggle for Gulf carriers because they are expanding at such a rate…a rate that in a sense defies belief in other regions.”

Gulf carriers are ramping up their expansion and investing heavily in new fleets as they look to build the region into a global tourism hub. Regional airlines placed orders of more than $30bn at this month’s Dubai Airshow.

Doha-based Qatar Airways announced a $6.5bn order with Airbus for 50 A320neo worth $4.6bn, plus options for another 30, and five A380s.

Dubai’s Emirates Airline, the largest international carrier, placed a record $26bn order with Boeing for 50 777s, including options to buy 20 more aircraft.

US plane maker Boeing said this month the Middle East will need 36,000 new pilots and 53,000 new maintenance personnel in order to keep up with its growing fleet. Boeing said it expects demand for 2,520 jetliners worth $450bn over the next 20 years, led by Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad.

A shortage of pilots coupled with the quality of crew training were two of the biggest concerns raised at the Gulf Aviation Training Event (GATE) conference at the Dubai Airshow. In a statement, the conference noted four points of concern including: “the quality of ‘outsourcing’; maintenance of high-quality training standards of both incoming pilot candidates as well as existing pilots; the use of ‘evidence-based’ training methods; and regular and careful industry reviews.”

Emirates this month announced it would invest $110m on a new training facility that would have the capacity to train up to 400 students at any time.

Disputes over pay and conditions for crew in Europe could hold the answer to the shortage in the long term. Strikes at British Airways over working conditions resulted in 22 days of strikes and cost the airline more than £150m. Australia’s Qantas has also clashed with staff over pay and other efforts to cut soaring costs.

“[Legacy carriers] have an attraction problem; there is nothing there for a pilot,” said Ahmad.

“So when it comes to the next generation of pilots coming through where are they going to pick, the growing Middle East or the antagonistic Europeans and American [airlines] - it’s a no brainer.”


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