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Emirates invests $135m as Middle East airline pilot shortage looms

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Airlines need to find qualified pilots to operate the ever growing demand for flights
  • Regional shortage could reach 3,000 pilots by 2023
  • Some airlines offering 30% pay increases to retain existing pilots
  • Academy aims to ‘bond’ pilots to Emirates 

Emirates has announced plans to invest $135 million in a new airline pilots training facility in Dubai as experts warn the Middle East’s aviation sector is facing a serious shortage of talent.

The UAE airline said it will build an advanced training facility to accommodate six full flight simulator bays for its future Airbus A350 and Boeing 777X aircraft. The 63,318 sq ft facility is slated to open in March 2024.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, chairman and chief executive of Emirates Airline and Group, said the investment in the training centre would “ensure Emirates’ readiness to commence its pilots’ training ahead of the delivery of its new aircraft fleet starting from 2024”.

His comments follow a report by global management consultancy Oliver Wyman last year that indicated a pilot shortage will impact the Middle East as air travel demand returns to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels.

It found that demand for airline pilots will outstrip supply in most regions globally between 2022 and 2024 – with the Middle East feeling the effects first outside the US.

André Martins, partner and head of transportation, services and operations for India Middle East and Africa at management consultancy Oliver Wyman said that establishing training centres in anticipation for both growing demand and fleet additions was a wise move.

“We expect the global shortage of pilots will continue to be a real issue. In some countries in the GCC and the wider Middle East, the shortage will be equivalent to north of 30% of the total pilot workforce by 2030,” he told AGBI.

A render of the new pilot training centre slated to open in March 2024. Picture: Emirates

Oliver Wyman estimates that the average age of a pilot in the Middle East is around 47 years old, with many likely to enter retirement in the coming years.

“This poses additional challenges in terms of how to fulfil the required demand of pilots across the GCC,” said Martins.

The declining supply of pilots in the region is due to a combination of lay-offs during the pandemic, a falling number of newly certified pilots and retirements outstripping new pilots. 

The regional shortage could reach an estimated 3,000 pilots by 2023 and 18,000 by 2032 if no accelerated mitigation actions are taken. Globally Oliver Wyman is predicting a shortage of nearly 63,000 pilots by 2030.

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André Martins at Oliver Wyman said the shortage of pilots in the Middle East could exceed 30% by 2030 if not resolved

Linus Benjamin Bauer, founder and managing director of Bauer Aviation Advisory, said: “The increasingly evident shortage of pilots in the Middle East is a significant issue that is affecting airlines and other aviation organisations in the region, and it requires urgent attention.

“There’s a need for a coordinated effort between industry stakeholders, regulatory bodies, and educational institutions to develop a pipeline of qualified pilots.”

John Grant, chief analyst at global travel data provider OAG and partner of Midas Aviation, said pilot shortages are now common around the world, with some airlines offering 30 percent-plus pay increases this year just to retain their existing pilots. 

“The challenge is in finding qualified pilots with the experience to operate the ever growing demand for flights as the recovery from the pandemic increases,” he said.

“For Emirates, securing a pool of pilot talent via an academy ‘bonding’ them to the airline makes sense. It will give them a greater degree of protection from the ebb and flow of pilot resources.”

Andrew Charlton, managing director of Aviation Advocacy, a strategy and government affairs consultancy, said: “Fleets will grow, meaning more pilots are needed. 

“Training is the obvious way to make the pool larger, rather than needing to get into a bidding war to attract talent, the only other option. 

“Longer term, maybe we will increase automation, but pilots are proving hard to replace.” 

With the addition of the new facility to Emirates’ existing training colleges in Dubai, the airline said it will have the potential to expand its pilot training capacity by 54 percent per year with a total of 17 full flight simulator bays offering a capacity of more than 130,000 training hours a year.

The new college will commence training its first batch of A350 pilots by June 2024.

In November, Emirates began a massive $2 billion cabin refresh and retrofit programme for 120 of its existing aircraft. 

In its latest commercial market outlook report, a forecast of 20-year demand, US-based plane maker Boeing said the Middle East will require 202,000 new aviation personnel, including 53,000 pilots, 50,000 technicians and 99,000 cabin crew members in the next 20 years.

It added that the region’s airlines will require 2,980 new airplanes valued at $765 billion to serve passengers and trade over the same period. 

More than two-thirds of these deliveries will enable growth, while one-third will replace older airplanes with more fuel-efficient models such as the Boeing 737 Max, 787 Dreamliner and 777X.

The Middle East freighter fleet is projected to reach 170 by 2041, more than doubling the pre-pandemic fleet.

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