Rapid Growth Leaves Asian Airlines Searching for Pilots

An AirAsia plane taxis, while another is parked on the tarmac at the Changi International Airport on Monday in Singapore. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
An AirAsia plane taxis, while another is parked on the tarmac at the Changi International Airport on Monday in Singapore. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Every week, a combined total of 28 new planes roll off the assembly lines at Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer factories — the fastest production rate in the history of commercial aviation. Most of those aircraft feed the insatiable demand in Asia.

The rapid growth of Asian airlines is helping bolster economies and change lifestyles, but it’s also creating a daunting safety challenge as more passengers head into an increasingly crowded airspace.

Much of the boom has been driven by the surge in popularity of Southeast Asia’s budget carriers, such as AirAsia, whose Flight 8501 disappeared Sunday morning, 42 minutes after it took off from Surabaya, Indonesia, on its way to Singapore. It is still unclear what happened to the plane, but the aviation disaster has put a new spotlight on the obstacles that lie ahead for the booming region.

As Southeast Asia’s economies grow, creating a burgeoning middle class, more people have the appetite to travel. Airlines are struggling to ensure that their training and safety standards keep pace with the demand.

There are currently 1,600 aircraft operating in Southeast Asia, Brendan Sobie, analyst at the CAPA Centre for Aviation, a consultancy in Sydney, said by email. “It is the only region in the world with as many aircraft on order as in service,” he said. “So the growth seems set to continue.”

For each new plane, airlines need to hire and train at least 10 to 12 pilots, sometimes more, according to industry experts. The figure is so high because planes often fly throughout the day and night, seven days a week, while pilots need sleep and days off.

Right now, Asia-Pacific accounts for 31 percent of global air passenger traffic, according to the International Air Transport Association. Within two decades, that figure is forecast to jump to 42 percent, as Asia adds an extra 1.8 billion annual passengers for an overall market size of 2.9 billion.

Boeing projects that the Asia-Pacific region will need 216,000 new pilots in the next 20 years, the most of any part of the world, accounting for 40 percent of the global demand.

To put that in perspective, there are about 104,000 pilots currently working in the United States, flying everything from crop dusters to jumbo jets, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The exponential growth in and the demand for air travel were not anticipated by many of the governments in the region,” says Shukor Yusof, founder of the Malaysia-based aviation research firm Endau Analytics. “And so you’re seeing a lack of infrastructure, airports and pilots because nobody expected low-cost travel would have taken off as quickly, as rapidly, and would be as lucrative as it is now.”

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