In Africa, poachers are after a new kind of game - commercial jetliner pilots.
It is not unheard of for the captain of an African carrier to shut down the engines of his plane after a flight and literally walk off the job for a better-paying one with another airline in Asia or the Middle East.
In parts of Asia, poachers have disrupted air travel. Philippine Airlines reportedly lost 75 pilots to other airlines over the past three years. China is snatching pilots from Brazil and just about anyplace else they can be found.
India may be even hungrier for pilots than China. The government there finally drew up a code of conduct that requires pilots to give adequate notice before leaving for another airline.
As The Boeing Co. and Airbus sell more planes than ever, many of those planes are headed to parts of the world where airlines are desperate for pilots.
"They are begging for pilots," said Sherry Carbary, president of Alteon, Boeing's commercial jetliner training arm.
With such demand, Alteon is testing a program that can cut training time in half. Although one of the world's foremost aviation bodies established the framework for the program, it is not without controversy. Students will spend much more time in ground-based simulators and far less time actually flying a plane - and that has critics worried.
Alteon, which stresses that safety won't be compromised, has some rather startling data to show just how bad the pilot shortage is.
With the world's jetliner fleet expected to double over the next 20 years, Alteon estimates that more than 17,000 new pilots will be needed each year just for the new planes that will be delivered from 2006 to 2025. Even more will be needed to fill the seats of retiring pilots.
According to Alteon's forecast:
India has fewer than 3,000 pilots today, but will need more than 12,000 by 2025.
China will need an average of 2,162 new pilots a year, or 43,240 by 2025.
Central America and South America will need 1,344 new pilots a year. South America has fewer than 10,000 commercial jetliner pilots today. It will need nearly 27,000 by 2025.
Europe will need an average of 3,747 new pilots a year.
The Middle East and Africa will need an average of 1,205 pilots a year.
No region of the world will need more pilots than North America over the next 20 years, according to Boeing. Canada and the United States have about 64,000 jetliner pilots today, but will need more than 128,000 by 2025.
But there is no shortage of pilots in the U.S. to fly commercial jetliners. In fact, there is a pilot surplus. U.S. airlines laid off more than 10,000 pilots after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Many remain out of work, though some are taking jobs in Asia and the Middle East, where the shortage of pilots is most severe.
That could change, however. U.S. airlines are starting to order new planes again, and both Boeing and Airbus forecast the North American market will be bigger than even China or India over the next two decades.
From Cessnas to simulators
Training pilots to fly commercial jetliners is difficult, expensive and time-consuming. China, India and many other countries that have a lot of new planes coming from Boeing and Airbus, as well as from the manufacturers of smaller regional jets, are not able to train enough pilots at home.
Boeing's Alteon has nearly two dozen training centers around the world. CAE of Canada, which is used by Airbus, is another major player.
But it can take as long as three years to train someone who has never flown any kind of plane to fly commercial jets as first officer. So the industry is closely watching what is happening at Alteon's flight training school in Brisbane, Australia.
About a month ago, six cadets from China started training that will land them in the right seat of a commercial jetliner in about half the time it takes today to be trained as a first officer.
An Alteon briefing paper describes its current pilot-training programs like this:
"The world needs more pilots now, and our current training solutions are lengthy and inefficient. For many cadets, the journey from the street to the right seat is a two- to three-year process."
The framework for the new program, known as the Multi-Crew Pilots License, or MPL, was established last year by the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations.
Alteon's Carbary said Boeing worked with regulators and customers to "enhance" what ICAO proposed. The aim is to teach students from the beginning the skills they need to fly in a multicrew jetliner. Instead of accumulating a couple of hundred or more hours flying in a small, single-engine plane, the Brisbane students will spend a lot of their training in a Boeing 737-800 simulator. They will rotate their time in the simulator as captain, first officer and as an observer.
In other words, they learn to be a crew member flying a full-motion simulator that is as realistic as the cockpit of a 737, rather than accumulating flight time in a single-engine Cessna 152.
Two airlines in China each supplied three cadets.
"They wanted to see if this is a way they can pull pilots faster into their airlines," Carbary said.
The goal is to reduce the time it takes to be trained as a first officer to as little as 12 to 18 months. And that's for someone with no previous experience flying a plane.
When their training is over, the six cadets will return to their respective airlines, China Eastern and Xiamen. Alteon will continue to monitor their progress for several years to determine if their performance is as good as, better or worse than first officers who come up through the usual pilot-training process.
Carbary described the Brisbane program as a "beta test."
"If this does not work, then we won't proceed," she said. "But I'm confident the industry is going to move in this direction."
But just how safe is this approach to pilot training, which runs counter to the long-held belief by traditionalists that experience at the controls of a plane is the best teacher?
"I worry," said John Nance of Tacoma, noted aviation writer and a former 737 pilot for Alaska Airlines. Nance is aviation safety consultant for ABC News.
Nance said similar approaches to training commercial pilots have been tried before in which the emphasis is put on simulator time.
What happened, he said, is that students did well in the simulator but were not prepared for what it was like inside the cockpit of a commercial jetliner when something went terribly wrong and the plane started bouncing around.
"They are walking a fine line here," he said of the test program.
"I'm nervous that we can take someone off the street and with mostly simulator time turn them into a competent pilot and put them in the right seat. Let something go to heck in a handbasket, and you will have a hard time justifying your faith in the ultimate safety of this type of training program."
In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration requires 250 flight hours to attain a commercial license. Most first officers would have many more hours than that.
The MPL program established by ICAO requires students to receive 70 hours of actual flight time, 10 hours of which must be solo.
But Alteon has gone beyond what ICAO requires, according to Marsha Bell, marketing director for Alteon who was previously vice president of Alteon's first officer programs.
Alteon's cadets will spend at least 83 hours in a single-engine Diamond 40 plane. They will also spend 117 hours in simulators, first in a Diamond 40 simulator and then in the Boeing 737-800 simulator.
The Alteon cadets each will be required to complete 33 missions in the Boeing simulator as captain, 33 missions as first officer and 33 missions as the observer. Each training mission will last about two hours.
The training is not over once the cadets complete the Alteon program.
Before they can receive an MPL certificate, they must make a dozen takeoffs and landings in the same type of commercial jetliner that they will be flying for an airline as first officer.
Of course, they would still not be able to be the pilot in command of a small Cessna - unless they had a private pilot's license.
The MPL program has been embraced by a number of airlines and regulatory bodies, but not by the FAA. So don't expect to see pilots with MPL certificates as first officers in U.S. jetliners any time soon.
The six cadets now in training in Australia should be flying in the right seat with their respective airlines in China by next summer.
Carbary receives frequent updates on their progress.
"There are a lot of people looking at what we can do to ensure a faster flow of competent, dependable pilots," Carbary said. "But it is all about safety first. We are trying to provide a program that is not only equally safe (as pilot training programs today), but more safe. One accident is too many."
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