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5 Challenges Faced by China in the Supply and Demand for Pilots

I attended the China Aviation Training Forum 2016 in Beijing on October 18-19. This two day forum presented some interesting insights into the challenges facing the aviation industry in China, especially in terms of the supply and demand for pilots.

Over the next two decades, fast growth in China’s domestic market will make it the largest domestic market in the world, and air traffic within Asia is set to become the largest travel market.[1] More than 1.5 billion passengers are expected to travel by air within China in 2035, almost four times the number of passengers in 2015.[2]

This rapid growth in air traffic comes with many challenges in the supply and demand for pilots, and the Chinese aviation industry is being tested in new ways every year.

There are approximately 32,000 pilots across the airlines in China and around 8,000 in General Aviation. According to one presenter, the current 9,000 First Officers could be promoted to fill the required 9,000 Captain positions in the next 2-3 years. However, there are more pilots in the 31-35 year old age group than any other range, which by western standards seems quite young to be a Captain.

When we read reports about pilot shortages around the world we almost always think about commercial pilots only, but there is another community of pilots and also an alternate career for pilots that is often never thought of.

General Aviation (GA) – those private charter companies that seem to be numerous in the US are not yet as significant in China -needs pilots as well. Figures presented at the forum show there are approximately 200 GA companies in China, not huge by any means given the geographic size of the region and out of these, only a quarter are profitable.

GA is certainly not in the position to be able to accept candidates from the street and train them either and pilots who train through the academic route that miss out of airline positions, do not tend to turn towards GA. After such a heavy investment, GA does not seem to be attractive enough to lure graduates into their world.


Challenge #1 – The Academic Supply Chain

Almost all the flight crew positions in China are now sourced from the academic supply chain. Airlines are not taking in candidates from the street and training them from scratch any longer. This reduces the cost to the airlines, however it places a significant financial burden of the families of future pilots. At an average cost of around US$150,000 in university fees, the pressure to complete the training is great, which is not necessarily motivational in the successful completion of the course.

Apart from the academic requirements there are also very strict medical examinations that must be passed, and many of these are not conducted until after the students have completed some of the more basic subject areas. Failing the medical examination results in an automatic failure of the course. At this point, a student’s family has already incurred significant debt.

Some airlines are trying to work with the authorizing body to review the strict medical requirements to reduce the dropout rate without compromising safety. Captain Amornvaj (Ben) Mansumitchai, Executive VP for APAC, IFALPA and A380-800 captain at Thai Airways believes that the airlines need to commit to some of the expense of developing pilots in the early stage.

In addition, Mr. Yong Hong Shi, General Manager of Shanghai Spring Flight Training believes that there still needs to be a greater emphasis placed on manual flight training – “Having skills is more important than having knowledge,” according to Shi.

Human factors such as aptitude and attitude are also taken into account to ensure the student is fit for a career in aviation.

Bo Yan, General Manager for Flight Training at Hainan Airlines said that they have ordered 300 new aircraft, so they will need almost 1,000 new pilots. There is also a need to increase the number of its 195 foreign pilots as Hainan Airlines’ global routes increase.


Challenge #2 – Sourcing Qualified Instructors

Aptitude and attitude should be taken into account to ensure a student is fit for a career in aviation. The same applies to flight training instructors.

Hiring qualified instructors is also a challenge. Shanghai University received significant funding from the government to build an aviation campus, boasting that most of the instructors were PhD level academics, but most of them had little or no airline experience. The solution was to send instructors to the airlines for a year to gain some “on the job” training.

Is a year “on the job” enough to make an effective instructor?


Challenge #3 – Career Misconceptions

Many have selected the career as a pilot due to the persona that is often presented: a prestigious professional career that is admired by many, in total command of a hi-tech piece of machinery whilst travelling the world, is what many believe being a “pilot” is all about.

The truth is that with modern technologies the pilot is not in command of the aircraft much at all, for the most part the flight is controlled by multiple computers and the pilot is the backup for those systems. Some see this as a major let down and leave the profession early, only those with a true passion for flying remain. Also for many pilots with low cost carriers, their route is not varied much at all. Being assigned to a single route gets boring after some time.


Challenge #4 – Seniority-Based Culture

Being in the right-hand seat as a First Officer also means that a more senior person is sitting next to you on the left. It is customary for junior staff to not challenge the more senior pilot in their decisions, which could have disastrous results.

For example, the Asiana flight crashing into the runway at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) many years ago was caused by human error, with the senior pilot overriding the alerts from the junior co-pilot. Until senior pilots’ attitudes towards junior staff change, there will always be a risk. Also, junior pilots must learn to feel comfortable with raising concerns without fear of negative personal repercussions


Challenge #5 – Training Technology

There is an increasing use of Line Orientated Flight Training (LOFT) where the entire flight deck crew is monitored during simulator (sim) sessions to ensure cohesion in decision making, with briefing and debriefing sessions becoming an important aspect of the training.

Most presenters at the forum mentioned that Competency Based Training (CBT) is being introduced into the pilot training although a majority of the training in still delivered in a classroom and sim environment. There was not much mention at the forum of technology based training. Only one airline, Thai Airways, made a reference to Training Management Systems (TMS).

Evidence Based Training (EBT) from IFALPA/IATA did not get any mention at all, even though this has been a popular topic at the Asia Pacific Airline Training Symposium (APATS) over the past two years.

Although Hainan Airlines focuses on classroom based training, they also use a locally developed mobile app, online exams and WeChat groups to support their 860 captains, 1210 co-pilots across 170 aircraft.

Lastly, there was a session about the potential of Augmented Reality by using goggles to overlay the technical processes in a real world environment. They used a sample from BMW to show the concepts, however given the speed at which line maintenance teams must work, it all seemed a little too slow,.i.e., in the time it took the car mechanic to take out the fan, an aircraft maintenance technician would have taken the wheel off and a new one fitted. It seems this technology is not mature enough and requires more R&D.

China will certainly be facing some critical challenges with flight crew headcount in the near future. Apart from the need to establish more appropriate technical and psychological requirements for pilots, there is also a need for change in their culture to improve cohesion and collaboration in the cockpit. Most importantly, there is a real need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of pilot training methods.

[1]Boeing Current Market Outlook 2015

[2]Airbus Global Market Forecast 2016-2035

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Steve Young is General Manager for Asia Pacific at NetDimensions. Prior to joining NetDimensions, Steve spent several years with various technology companies in Australia, Singapore, and Japan developing the market for enterprise talent management applications. His area of expertise includes managing compliance in aviation. In his past life, Steve has been an Airframe/Flight Fitter/Helicopter Crewman in the Royal Australia Airforce for more than 10 years and a Technical Instructor for UH-1 Helicopters in the Royal Australia Airforce for 2 years.