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We need to inspire the next generation of pilots

The airline industry is facing a critical shortage of pilots. Simply put, airline customer demand is outpacing airline capacity. The problem is especially pronounced in Asia, where half the world’s growth in commercial growth will be located, but it is also a concern in the US. Projections suggest that if the industry continues to produce pilots at the current rate, the U.S. will only have about two-thirds of the pilots needed to keep the airline industry healthy 20 years from now.

The Federal Aviation Administration was so concerned it raised the maximum retirement age to 65 as a stop-gap measure, but that was a sticking plaster solution. The problem is not that pilots are retiring too young; it is that young people are not becoming pilots.

That might sound surprising. Hasn’t flying always been one of the most glamorous professions? Plenty of boys and girls dream of becoming pilots. True, but the cost of training is a major deterrent. Gaining the required number of flying hours to qualify as a pilot costs around $150,000 and starting salaries for entry level pilots are too modest to allow anyone to repay that investment in the first few years of their career.

A more flexible approach is needed. Using advanced flight simulators gives cadets the chance to learn in a dynamic environment, replicating in-flight emergencies and providing a wide variety of challenging situations to address. Traditionally, the industry has preferred to do its training in-house, but well-run pilot academies, boasting the most sophisticated simulators on the market, can become trusted partners to airlines, cutting the length and price of training without compromising passenger safety.

There also needs to be a more pro-active approach to encouraging women to join the industry. Only around 4,000, out of 130,000 pilots employed globally, are women – just three per cent of the workforce. That can’t continue if we are to find ways of addressing the pilot shortage. The recent comments made by an airline CEO, that a woman would find it impossible to do his job were symptomatic of an attitude that has pervaded the industry for too long.

However, the outcry that followed his remarks – and his attempts to disown them – suggest the message may be getting through. The sky has no glass ceiling and nor should the airline industry.

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