Should you start or continue your pilot training during the pandemic?

ATPLOnline technical flight training outlook – June 2021

By Caitlin – ATPLOnline Team

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Since March 2020 the aviation industry has encountered unprecedent disruptions and challenges due to the negative impacts of COVID-19. Flight numbers plummeted after multiple countries enforced lockdowns and border closures around the world, resulting in large job losses from all different sectors in the aviation industry.

Those of you who are currently thinking about starting your aviation journey may be wary of these impacts and the lasting effects they may have on the aviation industry. This article aims to bring optimism back to hopeful trainees, illustrating how the New Zealand aviation industry will recover post COVID-19, and why starting your flight training now makes sense for landing your dream job in a few years’ time. 

Before COVID-19, the aviation industry was facing a worldwide shortage of pilots. In 2018 it was reported that the shortage of pilots was up to 250,000 globally,with the Asia Pacific region alone needing over 250,000 ‘new pilots over the next 20 years’.2 Shortages in aviation pilots before COVID-19 were caused by two main factors: increased retirement numbers and attrition.

Due largely to the baby boom after the Second World War, currently ‘pilots over 50 years of age represent 38% of the total civil aviation pool’3 worldwide. An ageing workforce creates the need for a ready supply of new pilots, particularly as all Baby Boomers will be at or over the mandatory retirement age of 65 by 2029, with most Baby Boomers surpassing this age presently. For our part of the world this affects international flying only, excluding some South Pacific international destinations i.e. between New Zealand and Australia. In 2018 up to 50 pilots in New Zealand were retiring each year, and this number will only continue to increase as the Baby Boomer generation phases out of the workforce and into retirement.2

Whilst COVID-19 has reduced the demand for pilots in the short term, as the aviation industry begins to recover, the anticipated shortage of pilots will remain. Boeing reports that between 2020 and 2039, 248,000 pilots in the Asia Pacific region will still be needed, only a 0.008% decrease in pilot demand for the same region pre-pandemic.4

We are surrounded by news everyday concerning the pandemic and the current state of the aviation industry, so it is natural to be wary about starting a career as a pilot. However, it is important to assess the long-term view of the industry – which is very positive. Aviation is known for being a resilient industry, it has recovered from other crises including the global financial crisis and 9/11. Whilst both crises caused a significant drop in demand for flying and staff were let go, the industry eventually recovered as demand picked up again in the years that followed.5 

Previous virus outbreaks such as SARS created a V-shaped impact on the aviation industry, whereby the impacts of the virus caused a sharp drop in demand initially, with the recovery pathway after the dip a corresponding positive sharp incline.6 A lot of hard work is being done worldwide to accurately predict the aviation recovery. In mid-June 2021 the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) modelled a variety of different recovery pathways for the aviation industry over the next 6 months, in terms of the impacts of COVID (including the V-shaped recovery), these provide various scenarios on how the recovery trajectory may take place.6    

Recovery of demand within the domestic sector of aviation within New Zealand looks promising for current and aspiring pilots. Despite alternative business practices, such audio and video conferencing becoming more widespread out of necessity during the pandemic, Air New Zealand reported on 18 June 2021 that domestic ‘corporate demand’ had returned to 80% of pre-pandemic levels, with domestic travel overall sitting at 90% of pre-pandemic levels. Air New Zealand’s Chief Executive Officer Greg Foran describes that ‘the airline has its eyes firmly set on the future as we move out of the survive phase and into the revival mode’.7

Recovery in the international sector of aviation is slowly reopening, and with the availability of vaccinations not too far away for all New Zealanders, there are many things to be optimistic about. The international market for New Zealand aviation is slowly reopening, with the first signs of returning to some form of normality coming in the form of the Trans-Tasman Bubble. The Trans-Tasman Bubble, which opened on the 19th April 2021,8 is a ‘two way travel corridor’ between Australia and New Zealand which is quarantine free.9 The bubble is possible as both countries have contained COVID-19 to a point where it is safe to travel between the countries, except for pauses in the bubble between New Zealand and certain Australian states from time to time.9 

The anticipated spike in demand for flights was large enough for Air New Zealand to rehire over 300 staff that had been let go previously, due to impacts of coronavirus.10 Current capacity as at 18 June 2021 is sitting at ‘around 70% of pre-Covid levels’.7 Following this success, New Zealand launched a travel bubble with the Cook Islands on the 17th May 2021 and more travel bubbles are expected to be created between other Pacific Island nations and New Zealand and Australia. Not only do these travel bubbles demonstrate that the New Zealand aviation industry is slowly but surely recovering, it shows that demand for pilot numbers will correspondingly increase as well. 

The roll out of COVID-19 vaccinations are the gateway to wider international travel and are another way to bring back confidence in the general population to travel. The New Zealand Government estimates that the vaccination roll out for the general population will begin from the 28 July 2021 for those aged 60 years and over.11 The vaccination roll out in New Zealand has already begun for border workers, frontline workers, and those either living in high-risk areas or those who are at high-risk from ‘getting very sick from COVID’.11 Foran describes that ‘with the rollout of the vaccines underway around the world and here in New Zealand, this has positive implications for our recovery when borders open’.12 

Many countries are considering relaxing travel rules for people who have been vaccinated. Britain is currently considering following the European Union in allowing ‘fully vaccinated tourists to avoid COVID-19 tests and quarantine from July’.13 This demonstrates a positive impact for the aviation industry from COVID vaccinations, as was shown by the rise in airline stocks after it was reported that these rule relaxations for vaccinated tourists were being considered.13

During 2020, ATPLOnline saw many commercial pilots who were studying for their Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL theory courses) take a pause with their studies. This made sense for many existing pilots, as upgrades from First Officer to Captain positions were looking uncertain in the short term and many pilots were also unfortunately stood down or made redundant.

Mark Goston, the founder of ATPLOnline.co.nz says “many of these existing pilots currently affected by the pandemic are friends and colleagues in the industry and it has been extremely difficult for many of these folk personally. Thankfully, with the domestic markets picking up we are seeing more pilots returning to their jobs. Let’s hope this continues soon for the rest of the international pilots too. Travelling every week on a large domestic airline, to position for flight duty, I am encouraged to see these large aircraft carrying full passenger loads again. This is now common on many domestic routes. The flying public is finding its appetite to travel again. They will need pilots to fly them around the skies for years to come.”

This sentiment is echoed with reports from airlines such as Air New Zealand stating they are operating domestically at approximately 90% of their pre-pandemic levels,7 ATPLOnline is seeing many of these same pilots return to resume their ATPL studies. This signals that these pilots are encouraged with the upgrade outlook over the next few years – and preparing themselves now for the inevitable positive industry movement. 

The appetite to become a pilot amongst those who are deciding a career path, is strong as well. ATPLOnline has seen incredible interest in our Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) and Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) online theory programmes as future pilots recognise that choosing a career path is a decision that is not taken with a short-term horizon. It takes at least 1-3 years to train as a commercial pilot in New Zealand or Australia and a longer horizon to accrue the necessary flying hours to be attractive to a larger air operator. Often these hours are accrued by also training and working as a Flight Instructor, teaching others to fly – a great way to build up flying hours while getting paid.

For those looking into starting their pilot journey, this timing could be perfect with the training timeframe for a commercial pilot (1-3 years) aligning with the demand returning to pre-pandemic levels. If trainee pilots were to start the training process now, they would be completing their flight training between late 2022 to the end of 2024. This largely falls within passenger levels expecting to return to pre-pandemic levels by ‘late 2023 and early 2024’.3 Therefore, those who decide to start embarking on their pilot training now could be well positioned for jobs when their training finishes. 

The aviation training industry has had to adapt to disruptions created by COVID-19. Boeing reports that the ‘training industry has begun to adopt increasingly innovative solutions’.4 These include opting for virtual and online versions of training formats and talks of ‘immersive technologies’ to enhance learning throughout the training process.4 Changes are occurring within the training aviation industry, with ‘prescriptive, task-based training’ shifting to a ‘more holistic approach’.4 In the near future, ‘artificial intelligence and learner analytics’ will create tailored training to the ‘individual student’, thereby allowing more emphasis to ‘be placed on closing knowledge gaps’ within aviation training.4 

Trainee pilots are becoming increasingly cost aware given the cost of flight training and current industry uncertainty. Training to become a pilot is a financial commitment – with or without a student loan. Currently, the cost for aviation training can be a barrier to entry, ‘which needs to be addressed for a more diverse workforce’.14 We encourage future pilots to shop around and do your homework – especially for your aviation theory courses, where fees vary widely in the marketplace. ATPLOnline has a long history of over ten years delivering innovative, accessible, and flexible learning options for pilots while keeping theory course training costs down.

For those choosing to become a pilot, there are many different pathways and flying jobs available – even now during the pandemic. While flying for an airline is an aspiration for many starting out in the industry. There are lots of other flying jobs to consider – some of which may be more rewarding for some pilots than flying for an airline. There is plenty of choice.

There are opportunities across a variety of different sectors, for example’ in the tourism sector (i.e. sight-seeing pilots and parachute operation), as cargo pilots – which has been largely unaffected worldwide by the pandemic, flight instructors, aeromedical pilots, aircraft ferrying and other regional pilots. Many pilots enjoy the variety of working in several different sectors across their aviation career where roles can fit well with their lifestyle and personal circumstances. Many pilots also enjoy highly rewarding positions in a specific sector – choosing to stay there for the duration of their flying careers.

Whether you are fresh out of high school or have found a love for flying later in life, now is the time to begin your training as a pilot. As the recovery process continues over the next few years, the aviation industry will need new trainee pilots, willing to put in the hard work now, for a future place in the sky tomorrow. 


References 

Bradley, Grant 2018 ‘How to ease the pilot shortage’, New Zealand Herald 27 July. 

https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/how-to-ease-the-pilot-shortage/4DCZTSIOZU74PI6WUYY5TOLBJM/

2 Furley, Tom 2018 ‘Global pilot shortage affects NZ’ RNZ 20 August. 

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/2018658849/global-pilot-shortage-affects-nz

3 CAE 2020 Pilot Demand Outlook 2020, n.d. 

https://www.cae.com/cae-pilot-demand-outlook-2020/index.html

Boeing 2020 Pilot and Technician Outlook, n.d. 

https://www.boeing.com/commercial/market/pilot-technician-outlook

5 Thorn, Adam 2020 Comment: Why Resilience is Key for Aspiring Airline Pilots, 09 October.  

https://australianaviation.com.au/2020/10/comment-why-resilience-is-key-for-aspiring-airline-pilots/

ICAO 2021 Effects of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Civil Aviation: Economic Impact Analysis, 15 June. 

https://www.icao.int/sustainability/Documents/Covid19/ICAO_coronavirus_Econ_Impact.pdf

7 Air New Zealand June 2021 market update to the New Zealand Stock Exchange

https://announcements.nzx.com/detail/374146

8  McClure, Tess and Elias Visontay 2021 ‘Trans-Tasman travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia to start on 19 April’ 

The Guardian 06 April

9 Downes, Siobhan 2021 ‘Trans-Tasman bubble: What you need to know about travel between Australia and NZ’ The Sydney Morning Herald 05 April. 

https://www.smh.com.au/national/trans-tasman-bubble-what-you-need-to-know-about-travel-between-australia-and-nz-20210405-p57go6.html

10 RNZ 2021 ‘Air NZ boss confident in trans-Tasman bubble despite latest Covid-19 cases’ 13 April. 

https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/business/440359/air-nz-boss-confident-in-trans-tasman-bubble-despite-latest-covid-19-cases

11 Ministry of Health New Zealand 2021 ‘COVID-19: The vaccine rollout’, 17 June. 

https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus/covid-19-vaccines/covid-19-getting-vaccine/covid-19-vaccine-rollout#group4

12 Air New Zealand 2021 Air New Zealand positions itself for success, 25 February. 

https://www.airnewzealand.com.au/press-release-2021-airnz-positions-itself-for-success

13 Young, Sarah and Alistair Smout 2021 ‘Britain, pressed by airlines, may ease rules for vaccinated travellers’ Reuters 18 June. 

https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/fully-vaccinated-people-uk-could-be-allowed-travel-amber-list-countries-the-2021-06-16/

14 Service IQ 2021 Aviation Sector Skills Summary, n.d. 

https://www.serviceiq.org.nz/assets/Attachments/Workforce-Development/Sector-Skills-Summaries/Aviation-Sector-Skills-Summary-web.pdf

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