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Middle East airlines in race to recruit as pilot shortage bites

Middle East carriers have hundreds of aircraft on order – and need pilots to fly them Shutterstock
Middle East carriers have hundreds of jets on order – and need pilots to fly them
  • Up to 18,000 more pilots needed
  • Emirates aims to hire 1,700
  • Riyadh Air joins battle for talent

A shortage of pilots is threatening the ambitions of the Middle East’s growing aviation industry, analysts have warned, forcing airlines to bolster their recruitment efforts.

The global industry will be short nearly 80,000 pilots by 2032, according to management consultancy Oliver Wyman. The Middle East is projected to account for up to 18,000 of that total.

“It’s a real issue. It won’t go away, it’s going to cost and time is the only solution,” says John Grant, partner at Midas Aviation and an AGBI columnist.



The dearth of talent has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, when many pilots took early retirement or left the profession as fleets were grounded. While air traffic has recovered, recruitment levels are still some way off.

Emirates has more than 4,400 pilots but is looking to hire a further 1,700 over the next three years. Dubai’s flag carrier is holding recruitment roadshows in 26 cities across 18 countries this year.

The airline’s expanding order book is adding to the demand. Emirates has 310 aircraft in the pipeline, with a fleet of Airbus A350s due to start flying later this year and Boeing 777s set to arrive in 2025.

“While that is extremely exciting, we are looking to recruit the best pilots in the industry to fly these aircraft, which is why we have revved up our pilot recruitment drive,” an Emirates spokesperson told AGBI.

The Middle East is also gaining a new airline that will be competing for staff and passengers. Riyadh Air, owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, is due to start operations in mid-2025.

It wants to hire 700 pilots over the next three years. Last year it held recruitment events in Saudi Arabia, Casablanca, Dubai, Paris and London.

A Riyadh Air Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner at the Paris air show last summer. The carrier is due to start operations in mid-2025Reuters/Benoit Tessier
A Riyadh Air Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner at last year’s Paris air show. The carrier is due to start operations in mid-2025

Nahar Aljahani, vice president for talent acquisition at Riyadh, says 28 pilots have signed up so far, in a variety of senior roles.

The carrier has 72 widebody Boeing Dreamliner 787s on order, as well as narrowbody jets.

Last month Etihad Airways launched a recruitment campaign to attract “hundreds” of new pilots. The Abu Dhabi flag carrier has not released specific figures for its jobs drive, but it is aiming to double its 2022 fleet size by 2030.

Other regional airlines have big order books too. Turkish Airlines aims to increase its fleet size to 813 aircraft by 2033. Flydubai is waiting for its $11 billion order for 30 widebody Dreamliner jets.

Low-cost Saudi airline Flyadeal ordered 51 narrowbody Airbus aircraft in May. Saudia, one of the kingdom’s national carriers, has 105 jets on the way from Airbus, with the first batch due for delivery in early 2026.

Airlines around the world are raising salaries and perks as they fight to attract and retain talent. In the US, where the average pilot’s salary is about $250,000, Delta and other carriers are offering pay rises of about 30 percent.

Airlines including Emirates and Etihad are also reopening and expanding flight academies to train recruits.

“The capacity of flight training schools may become a limiting factor, necessitating significant investment in training infrastructure,” says Linus Bauer, managing director of aviation consultancy BAA & Partners. 

“Maintaining high training standards amid rapid expansion is crucial to ensure safety.”

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