Prepare for takeoff?

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Asia Is Running Out of Pilots

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Asia's aviation market is booming, but the supply of pilots isn't nearly keeping pace with the demand for flights. Airlines are already struggling with shortages in staff. Two Japanese carriers recently cut back on flights because they couldn't find pilots, and the international budget airline JetStar held off on expansion plans in the Asia-Pacific region for the same reason.

Clearly, Asia needs more people who can fly planes. The question is: who should be training them? So far, airlines and governments in the region haven't done much to prepare locals for the job. It's time for aviation companies in the West to lend them a hand.

Last year, Boeing estimated that, between 2014 and 2033, the Asia-Pacific region will need 216,000 new pilots. But according to a 2011 study from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nation's aviation agency, the region is only capable of training 5,000 pilots per year. For anyone who can't earn a spot in a local flight school (many of which are government-run or affiliated), the only option is to apply to one outside the region.

But foreign schools, especially those in the West, tend to be far too expensive for aspiring pilots from Asia. A 2014 survey by the British Airline Pilots Association found that more than half its members spent between 75,000 to 100,000 pounds ($114,220 to $152,300) on pilot certifications. A typical applicant from Thailand, say, could never afford that sum -- especially given the relatively meager salaries offered to entry-level pilots by the budget carriers that increasingly dominate the Asian market. (And given their tight profit margins, the budget airlines that dominate Asia are unlikely to raise entry-level salaries anytime soon.)

One way for Asian airlines to get more people in the cockpit, of course, would be to lower the bar for entering it. Japan did as much when it recently announced it would raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 64 to 67. That's two years higher than the retirement age recommended, for safety reasons, by ICAO. The older pilots will be subject to stricter health checks and shorter hours. But it's hard to justify taking risks where safety is concerned.

The better solution would be for Asian countries to open more civilian flight schools, ones that people in the region can afford to attend. If local airlines feel they can't afford to do that, or lack the necessary experience, Western companies like Boeing, Airbus and other plane manufacturers should pick up the slack. They would have a direct interest in doing so -- they're depending on more Asian flights for their own future profits, after all. (Boeing recently predicted that over the next two decades airlines in the Asia-Pacific region will buy 13,460 passenger jets.)

Boeing already owns and operates flight training centers in China, Singapore, South Korea and Australia. But Western companies should focus on ways to expand the pool of applicants, while lowering students' costs.

For example, Western companies could open new training centers in partnership with Asian universities, military academies, and even high schools with aviation and engineering programs. The local institutions could shoulder some of the costs -- sparing students additional tuition -- while the companies could offer their expertise in teaching commercial flight.

There are precedents for such partnerships. Last year, Nok Air, a Thai budget carrier, partnered with Japan’s All Nippon Airways, a pre-existing flight training center in Bangkok, and Assumption University (Thailand’s first university with a flight training program), to create a flight-training center. According to Nok Air, the facility will cut its costs of training pilots by 50 percent -- money that can be passed onto students in the form of lower tuition.

Emulating that program won’t be cheap or easy. But Boeing and other Western manufacturers should offer their support. It may be the only way to ensure that somebody is qualified to safely fly all the airplanes they plan on selling to Asian airlines.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net