Christopher Siem is spending 70,000 euros ($92,000) out of his own pocket to train as a pilot, a job where the unemployment rate is twice the German average.
Siem, 24, is among Germany’s aspiring pilots whose dreams of a career in the cockpit have been dented as the country’s airlines slash their fleets. Deutsche Lufthansa AG, which has about 5,500 pilots, will limit its fleet to 400 planes and cut 3,500 jobs, while Air Berlin Plc is also curbing crew numbers as it pares the aircraft roster by 27 over two years.
“I doubt I’ll get a job in the cockpit immediately,” said Siem, who is undergoing two years’ of training mainly at Frankfurt, where the sight of aircraft using a taxiway above the road he cycles each morning provides much-needed motivation to stick with the tuition. His parents help foot the bill.
A pilot glut extends across much of Europe as former flag carriers drop routes and minor operators get squeezed by high fuel costs and slow growth. Lufthansa has suspended some training at its in-house flight school because supply outweighs demand, pushing the unemployment rate for qualified aircrew to a record 14 percent in Germany, a pilot union estimates.
While Germany continues its rebound from the global recession, with Europe’s largest economy predicted to grow 0.3 percent this year and 1.5 percent in 2014, Lufthansa, like other network airlines, is trimming unprofitable European links that don’t help fill lucrative long-haul flights.
The carrier has dropped plans for a 480-strong fleet and will now make do with about 80 aircraft fewer than that through 2016, meaning it will require about 1,000 fewer pilots, based on an average need of 12.5 cockpit crew per plane.
Augsburg Airways, a regional airline that operates on behalf of Lufthansa, will cease operations at the end of this month, becoming the third carrier in the country to fold this year after ACG Air Cargo Germany GmbH, which went bust in March, and OLT Express Germany, which closed in January.
The failures will collectively put about 350 pilots out of work, according to Vereinigung Cockpit, a German pilot association whose spokesman Joerg Handwerg said unemployment among German aviators “has never been higher.”
Dire job prospects for pilots threaten to undermine the appeal of a career that for decades lured aspirants with the promise of global travel, high pay and professional prestige. These days, industry growth is led by low-cost carriers such as Ryanair Holdings Plc, whose relationship with pilots has been strained as some crew question the airline’s cost-cutting culture.
Dublin-based Ryanair’s pilot roster has swelled to 3,000 in 10 years from 550, while EasyJet plans to add 330 permanent jobs this year for a total of about 2,300, and has begun seeking recruits to fill 200 positions in 2014. The Luton, England-based carrier will require about 50 percent more aircrew in Germany as it adds four more aircraft to the seven currently based there.
The rise of discount operators has reduced average salaries for pilots across Europe, with no commensurate reduction in the cost of gaining the required qualifications.
“Pay isn’t as high as it used to be, or as high as people think, and it varies a lot among airlines,” said Siem.
Handwerg, the spokesman for the pilot union, said renumeration ranges from 24,000 euros a year for beginners at low-paying carriers to more than 200,000 annually for captains with high qualifications and experience. Lufthansa’s entry-level salary is about 60,000, while a captain can make more than 110,000 euros later, spokesman Michael Lamberty said.
Would-be pilots may also end up stumping up tens of thousands of euros more on so-called type ratings -- allowing them to fly a specific aircraft model -- and on line training, which familiarizes them with operating procedures, in order to land a permanent job. Flying 500 hours on an Airbus SAS A320 cost 40,000 euros at Airline Pilot.org in Istanbul -- after type rating on the plane has been secured for 15,500 euros.
Lufthansa’s pilots last staged a strike in 2010, which was ended by a mediation process, and are currently in negotiations over a new tariff. The wider group, which includes the company’s Austrian and Swiss units, has 8,500 pilots, compared with about 8,400 at Air France-KLM Group.
The aviator glut has made available some “very experienced, very good pilots,” said Markus Otto, chief executive officer at Leipzig-based European Air Transport. The unit of Deutsche Post AG’s DHL business has hired 86 flight crew in 18 months and isn’t finished yet, Otto said in an interview.
To improve his own career chances, Siem is pursuing a degree in aviation systems engineering and management, which could help land a job with Airbus’s German operations, though he’s adamant that flying remains the sole long-term focus.
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,” said Siem. “Sooner or later we’ll make it.”