Worldwide Shortage of Pilots Affecting Flight Safety, Analysts Say

Evidence of the exodus of pilots and mechanics from established airlines and national flag carriers abounds. And poaching is expected to intensify as Asian markets like China and India burgeon.


BRUSSELS, Belgium_As the Garuda Indonesia Boeing 737 approached Jakarta's main airport, veteran Capt. Marwoto Komar instructed his rookie co-pilot to extend the flaps to slow the plane for landing.

Seconds later, the Boeing slammed into the runway at double the normal landing speed, careened into a rice paddy and caught fire - killing 21 people.

Initial findings from the probe into the March 7 crash suggest a misunderstanding between the pilot and his first officer may have contributed to the crash. And analysts say such apparent miscues are a troubling sign that the worldwide shortage of experienced pilots is starting to affect flight safety.

"Although all airline pilots are trained to the same standards ... there are certain intangibles that only come from experience," said Patrick Smith, a U.S.-based airline pilot and aviation writer. "(Like) skill and a solid familiarity with airline operations."

The pilot shortage is relatively recent. It is the result of extraordinary air traffic growth in the Persian Gulf, China and India; the rise of lucrative low-cost carriers in Europe and Asia; and the sustained recovery of the U.S. airlines from the industry recession caused by the 9/11 attacks.

"There is a giant sucking sound, luring pilots to rapidly expanding airlines such as Emirates and Qatar and the budget carriers," said William Voss, head of the Flight Safety Foundation.

"The result is that experienced pilots from developing countries in Asia and Africa are leaving in droves for places like the Gulf, and (those nations) are left with no choice but to recruit pilots fresh out of flight school."

Evidence of the exodus of pilots and mechanics from established airlines and national flag carriers abounds. And poaching is expected to intensify as Asian markets like China and India burgeon.

Around Asia, flyers from national airlines such as Garuda have deserted for better paying jobs with new and successful budget carriers, such as Malaysia's AirAsia, leaving companies no choice but to employ graduates fresh out of flight school.

In Europe, Belgium's largest carrier Brussels Airlines recently complained of losing an average of 10 captains a month to pilot-hungry airlines in the Gulf, and have requested government intervention.

In the United States, where thousands of veterans were laid off after 9/11 and left the industry, regional carriers have been giving jobs to first officers with considerably less experience than would have been required 15 years ago.

At some airlines, such as Northwest, pilot shortages have led to record-breaking flight cancellations in recent months. In the last full week of June, it canceled about 1,200 flights, or about 12 percent of its flight schedule. After that, the airline said it would continue recalling all of its furloughed pilots and hire additional pilots.

Figures released by International Air Transport Association show that global air travel will likely grow 4-5 percent a year over the next decade, though the aviation boom in India and China is expected to exceed 7 percent.

The Persian Gulf, the fastest growing region for both passengers and cargo, registered growth of 15.4 and 16.1 percent respectively in 2006. Reflecting this expansion, in the first half of this year Boeing and Airbus received a joint total of 1,100 new orders.

"You just need to look at the order books of these airlines, to understand that these are primarily expansion aircraft," said Gideon Ewers, a spokesman for the London-based, 105,000-member International Association of Airline Pilots Associations (IFALPA).

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