Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Pilot poaching in the Pacific

It's the cover story in a publication you probably never heard of, from a place you seldom -- if ever -- think of. But it's reflective of a trend that has implications for professional pilots everywhere.

The publication is Islands Business. As its title suggests, it covers business news in the South Pacific. The cover story in the current issue is about 'pilot poaching' in the region. Small local carriers in developing countries spend a lot of money to train young pilots, only to see them jump ship for more lucrative jobs abroad at bigger, wealthier airlines.

The issue was raised last year at annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The article says that IATA’s communication manager for the Asia Pacific, Albert Tjoeng told Islands Business that pilot poaching was a global issue, but it was outside of IATA's scope.
In India last year, pilot poaching was so serious that it led to cancellation of flights by some airlines.

For the Philippines, local airline operators Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, Asian Spirit and Air Philippines warn that by 2010, the country may find itself without a single pilot or a maintenance crew because of the phenomenon. So serious was pilot poaching that the Philippino Government had to intervene with its own pilot retention programme.
A different point of view was expressed by Joseph Anea, chief executive of Solomon Airlines:
Anea believes that while losing pilots to bigger airlines may affect some airlines, the benefit would come their way in the long-term as these pilots tend to return home more experienced.

"For the pilots, they have to think of career progression, an improvement to their standard of living and a chance to have a wider experience," he says.

"And in the future, these pilots will return and would be more experienced."
Solomon Airlines employs mostly expatriate pilots, and Mr. Anea acknowledged that he has had only seven local pilots in the last 20 years, of which only three are now employed by them.

Of all the airlines in the Pacific region, Air Pacific -- Fiji's international airline -- seems to have been affected the most by pilot poaching. They report the loss of 21 pilots in the last three years, 16 of whom left for more lucrative flying jobs in the Middle East. The other 5 found jobs in Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.

The Islands Business article quotes John Campbell, CEO of Air Pacific:
"A new airline, Etihad, has aggressive growth plans for flights from Abu Dhabi and we expect they will soon initiate a recruitment drive worldwide to fill the jobs to be delivered by their new aircraft orders.

"Airlines in the Middle East have ordered or taken delivery of around 400 aircraft in the past. Each aircraft requires seven sets of pilots with up to three crews in each set so the total recruitment drive by Middle East carriers is around 6500 pilots.

"The aggressive growth plans mean that they do not have the time or resources to train their own staff so they poach experienced, competent pilots worldwide," Campbell says.
Campbell says he is resigned to the fact that his airline will continue to be a supplier of pilots for Middle Eastern airlines.

Like Solomon Airlines, Air Pacific also recruits expat pilots to fill its vacancies, mostly through crew-leasing agencies in Australia and New Zealand.

Campbell says:
"Salaries and work conditions for Air Pacific pilots are very generous and competitive within the region. But we simply cannot match those that are being paid in the Middle East.

"We are advised that pilots in the Middle East receive a salary in the order of US$18,000 tax free per month, plus free medical and hospital treatment, free schooling, free housing and free travel to their country of origin twice per annum.

"In some ways, the Middle East airlines can afford this because they do not pay the initial costs of training and type rating for crews—these costs are being paid by Air Pacific and other airlines."
For their part, the Middle Eastern carriers claim not to be poaching at all. Instead, they say that pilots approach them looking for higher paying jobs. They say it's a simple question of supply and demand.

No pilots were quoted in the article, but we can guess what their point of view would be: something along the lines of 'follow the money.'