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A cabin crew shortage could mean higher ticket prices

Rapid expansion with high levels of staff attrition mean airlines are locked in a hiring battle

An Emirates cabin crew member. Airlines may need to increase pay and perks if they want to keep their staff smiling Emirates
An Emirates cabin crew member. Airlines may need to increase pay and perks if they want to keep their staff smiling

The service skills of cabin staff are tested every day – most frequently by disgruntled passengers complaining about their seat pitch, the quality of food, or crying babies. 

But the professionalism of flight attendants is only really tested in an emergency. This was exemplified earlier this month when the cabin crew of Flight JL516 from Sapporo to Tokyo Haneda evacuated all passengers from a burning A350.

The opening line of nearly every inflight safety demonstration is true: the cabin staff are here for your safety, not your personal service. 

Last week’s announcement that Emirates is seeking to recruit another 5,000 cabin crew as it prepares for the delivery of long-haul A350s later this year and B777-Xs next year raises the question of where airlines will find their flight attendants.

The recruits will join 8,000 new cabin staff who joined the airline last year. Emirates is seeking graduates with customer service experience, asks for language skills and imposes height requirements. The available pool of talent to fill those roles must be nearing exhaustion. 

The Emirates brand will attract staff from other less attractive airlines, as will the perceived lifestyle, tax-free benefits and crew allowances. What are the implications for the wider industry?

Constant growth

The number of cabin staff required by any airline is a function of fleet size. The type of network operated can have an influence as well, as shorter haul routes may be operable with fewer staff. 

As a rule of thumb an airline requires around seven complete “sets” of cabin crew for each wide-bodied aircraft. Each “set” will have between 11–13 crew members and comprise senior and new cabin employees.

This constant staffing requirement exists across every airline in the world, but holds especially true for those in growth mode or in a specific region, such as the Middle East.

The latest update on aircraft orders across the major carriers in the Middle East reveals the size of the recruitment challenge ahead.

The table below highlights the number of wide-bodied aircraft expected to be delivered in the next four years, although Boeing’s production issues create some uncertainty around precise dates. 

Not all those scheduled aircraft deliveries will be for network growth. Boeing predicts that around 50 percent of all new deliveries will replace existing aircraft. However, in many cases those displaced aircraft will be sold or leased to other airlines around the world. 

If the Boeing 50 percent replacement factor is accurate, then the potential requirement for new cabin staff in the Middle East region soon adds up. 

The number of new cabin staff required by airlines across the Middle East rapidly builds and this is assuming a modest ramp-up of wide-bodied aircraft from Riyadh Air, which has yet to announce its full delivery schedules but is recruiting 300 cabin staff for the first half of this year. 

Not an easy job

Long, hard flights, multiple time zone changes and minimum rest periods make the life of cabin crew very different from the glamorous recruitment images.

The tough working environment leads to high levels of attrition, whereby skilled staff seek a more regular lifestyle than that allowed by the schedules. Many cabin crew will have seen just about every airport hotel around the world. 

So, aside from new cabin staff recruitment, there is a need to regularly top up the pool of cabin crew – attrition rates of 15 percent are not unusual in airlines. 

All these factors are resulting in ongoing aggressive recruitment campaigns. This means jobs for life for the recruitment teams involved – Emirates alone is planning over 400 career fairs around the globe this year to fulfil its needs. 

Recruiting cabin staff is a costly business. The outlays include investment in career fairs, initial training programmes with some inevitable failures, and then the costs of employment.

With such a demand for new staff, increased competition means higher salaries and allowances as airlines seek to attract and, more importantly, retain cabin crew. 

Overlay a scarcity of skills with the increasing costs of accommodation in major cities and the ongoing rises in costs of living, and airlines are going to have to double down on their salary packages to keep valued staff. 

This will be passed onto the passenger. So expect to pay a few dollars more in the coming years just to cover those costs.

John Grant is partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation

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