Pilot shortage: Australia to relax visa laws to attract foreign pilots

01 January 2018 / by the GAA team / Employment, Governance, Overview

AAP, 28 December 2017

Foreign pilots will once again be allowed into Australia on working visas to help address a shortage that threatens to ground aircraft and cancel flights.

The occupations eligible for foreign worker visas were slashed during a government shake-up in April but from next month, pilots will once again be granted access after concerns about the national shortage.

Jandakot aerodrome… an exclusive piece of Chinese real estate, near Perth

The Regional Aviation Association of Australia says the office of the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, has confirmed the change. The organisation is now lobbying for a four-year visa period rather than two.

Higgins said there had been a “trickle-down effect” with large international carriers, such as Etihad and Emirates, recruiting from Australian carriers, who then had to hire from smaller regional airlines. The foreign pilots would serve in a training and mentoring role to their Australian counterparts.

He said if the current situation continued, services would need to be cut.

Opposition transport spokesman Anthony Albanese said the skills shortages were an “indictment of the failure” of the government’s handling of Australia’s aviation industry.

“Australia should not only be able to produce enough skilled pilots to service our domestic industry; we should also have the capacity to train pilots for all around the world as an export industry to benefit our national economy.”

Albanese also raised concern about potential foreign ownership of Australian airports after reports that half of a regional Western Australian airport is now Chinese-owned.

Federal Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells acknowledged the pilot shortage but said the previous Labor government also had to take some blame for the long-standing problem. “Clearly there have been shortages; there have been issues that have been accumulating in recent years.”

Dutton declined to comment.

Pilot poaching, by Chinese with money to burn…

Chinese airlines are poaching experienced Australian pilots by offering more than $750,000 a year, says a report in The Australian. This is leading to concerns that pilot shortages may spread from regional Australia to major routes.

Combined with a decline in Australian pilot training, the lucrative Chinese contracts have prompted some pilots to warn of potential shortages of major airline captains amid a developing global shortage.

Captain Murray Butt, president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, representing 2250 Qantas Group pilots, told The Australian that Chinese airlines were offering salaries for domestic pilots beyond the capacity of Australia’s main carriers.

China Southern: part of an insatiable demand

“They are talking about 737 training captains earning upwards of $US600,000 ($769,000) tax-free and that’s going to be difficult even for the major Australian airlines to cope with,” he said. “The evidence is out there. People have been talking about a worldwide shortage for a long time and we’ve been a little bit protected because of the number of Australians that have been overseas and have wanted to come back.”

Significant numbers of Qantas pilots granted leave without pay to work with overseas carriers during a cost-cutting period are returning, with pilots again in demand. This is helping to offset any attrition for Qantas, but the decline in pilot training — and the purchase of Australian flying schools by Chinese airlines — has raised concerns about pilot numbers in the long term. “That’s the problem you have when you are not feeding [new pilots] in from the bottom and allowing people to go through a system to get to the top,” said Butt.

It is estimated that China will need an extra 110,000 pilots by 2035, a demand it cannot meet at home. Butt said he recently attended a conference where representatives from five Chinese airlines “all spoke about how they expected to double within the next five years and were just there to recruit”.

Captain David Booth, president of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, representing about 4500 commercial pilots, had not heard of Chinese companies offering as much as $769,000, but said Chinese pay packets of $400,000 were on offer on websites pitched to Australian pilots.

He said some Australian pilots were taking up such offers, but that most would likely be deterred by the loss of their airline seniority status on return to Australia.

“China is offering 100 per cent more than everyone else to fly a narrow-bodied aeroplane, but flying there also has its unique challenges,” he said.

Qantas Group spokesman Andrew McGinnes said the airline had no difficulty attracting pilots, with a recent recruitment drive attracting 1000 applications for 170 positions.

Virgin Australia chief pilot Mike Fitzgerald said while pilots were in “high demand” globally, the airline could compete.

He said: “Virgin Australia has a number of pilot recruitment drivers including our cadetship programme, the work we do with universities through their pilot training programmes, as well as using jobseeker platforms to advertise for experienced pilots. All Virgin Australia pilots receive international-standard training, a competitive salary and opportunities to fly a range of aircraft.”

The GAA says…

The dynamics of a pilot recruitment ‘pool’ for the likes of Air NZ, Qantas and Virgin (and more particularly, their subsidary regional feeder airlines) is adequate at present, but could change dramatically.

Consider, for example, operators such as China Southern, Xiamen Air, Suparna Airlines or Fuzhou Airlines.

China Southern already has large training bases set up in Australia. If it were to begin offering airline career advancement to the young instructors who are training its student pilots, the “stovepipe” system would see these young Kiwi and Australian instructors progressing through into the airline division, perhaps on a contract basis. This would inevitably reduce the pool of pilots for the regionals in Australia and New Zealand.

As these instructors move through a Chinese training organisation, new positions would be created at the bottom, stimulating the availability of job opportunities for newly qualified instructors.

At the end of a contract with a Chinese airline, these people would be experienced B737, A-320, ATR, or Embraer E190 pilots and could have the option of renewing their contracts or applying for a position with a New Zealand or Australian airline.

There may be impediments such as work visas, or a cultural requirement to only hire Chinese nationals into right-hand seat positions, but if demand for trained pilots exceeds supply, this could change almost overnight.

In our view, the New Zealand flight training industry should be recognising this insatiable demand for pilots by Chinese airlines and looking for ways to capitalise on it by forming relationships with them. If that means learning Mandarin, we say:  就这样吧 or Jiù zhèyàng ba (so be it).

What is becoming abundantly clear is that previous Australian and New Zealand governments consistently ignored expert predictions (most important of which was a Boeing forecast of global pilot demand which clearly illustrated an important economic opportunity for anyone smart enough to recognise it or brave enough to invest in it). Everywhere, politicians didn’t see the ball, let alone grab their chance to drop it. The cost of this gross negligence will be paid by taxpayers, and particularly by everyone who uses the aviation system.