Pilots come down to earth


  • Nation
  • Sunday, 28 Oct 2012

Down but not out: Low, who obtained his commercial pilot licence in 2010, has yet to find a job in the industry.

Young, jobless pilots are scrambling to make ends meet with the current glut in pilots.

SINCE he was six, S. Nathan has harboured the dream of becoming a pilot. It was an arduous journey to materialise his ambition but he made it. His parents were not affluent so he scrimped, saved, worked, invested in shares and sought ways to increase his education fund. Finally, he sold his car, took a loan and with additional funding from his family, enrolled in a flying school in Malacca in 2007.

After investing nearly RM250,000 in his studies, Nathan graduated top of his class in 2009 and earned himself a Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL). No one could have been prouder than his labourer parents. But three years on, he's still struggling to find employment.

“I've tried applying to all the local airlines but to no avail. Some of my coursemates are also in the same boat and are selling burgers and insurance to survive,” says Nathan, 30, who helps his parents run a sundry store and repairs computers to make ends meet.

Unlike other friends who have found jobs with several Indonesian airlines, Nathan prefers to seek jobs locally as he is the only son.

He says, “Both my parents are in their seventies and as a filial son, I have the responsibility of taking care of them. People might say I'm stubborn but I'd like to think I have perseverance. All I want to do is become a pilot. It's not going to help if I have a gloom and doom attitude, so I'll keep trying.”

On a suggestion by Department of Civil Aviation director-general Datuk Azharuddin Abdul Rahman to unemployed pilots to consider getting helicopter licences, Nathan lets out a cynical laugh.

“We've just spent a quarter of a million ringgit and have yet to pay up our loans. Where are we going to get the extra money (to obtain a helicopter licence) from?” asks Nathan.

Fellow pilot Low Kong Chian is also in the same predicament. He graduated in 2010 but has yet to find a flying job. He is currently dabbling in an embroidery business while continuing to apply for jobs as a pilot.

He confesses, “I don't enjoy what I'm doing but I do not have many alternatives. I can't afford to pay for the licence conversion (around RM100,000) to become a pilot with any Indonesia airlines. And it's not viable for me to get a helicopter licence either.”

Low lives with his parents in Klang and works from home to cut costs.

Despite holding a CPL and a Private Pilot Licence (PPL), A.William, 26, works at a call centre in an insurance agency while waiting for his dream job.

He obtained part of his licence overseas and part of it locally.

“For freshies, it's harder to get jobs in foreign airlines because we don't have enough experience. I could get an instructor licence but that would mean clocking in additional hours and forking out more money. My father withdrew all his EPF savings to pay for my education so I have to do something to survive. I can't depend on him forever.

“This is just a temporary job and I hope my situation will improve soon,” he says.

Nathan, Low and William are among 1,174 young pilots in the country with CPLs and Frozen Airline Transport Pilot Licences (Frozen ATPLs) but are jobless. However, they continue to go for medical tests and sit for exams yearly to keep their licences active in the hope that their dream job will land on their laps quickly.

With a PPL, you can fly throughout Malaysia and carry passengers but you are not allowed to charge for your services. With a CPL, you can work as a pilot. And with an ATPL you can fly as a captain on large aircraft.

A Frozen ATPL is a requirement for a pilot to work in an airline as a co-pilot. To obtain a full ATPL (i.e. “unfreeze”), pilots need to have 1,500 hours total flight time in an aeroplane, or 1,000 hours in a helicopter.

Nathan urges the authorities to relax this ruling for unemployed pilots.

“If we don't complete the hours within a stipulated time, we will have to retake the whole Frozen ATPL examination again. I've been unemployed for three years and I doubt I can unfreeze it in two years. This means I, and hundreds of others, are headed for extra costs and effort,” he laments.

In response to this, Azharuddin says, “If they don't make it in five years, they can appeal and we will treat it on a case to case basis although there have been no such cases. To become a captain is not something you can do by just collecting hours. There are many other factors like showing good commanding skills, etc.”

On the hiring of foreign captains on local airlines, he says it is sometimes a necessity until the qualified Malaysian first officers are promoted.

“When these airlines buy new aircraft, they want ready-made captains and if they don't have them from their stables, they have to get foreigners. For example, one aircraft may need four sets of crew so it would need four captains,” says Azharuddin.

The downturn of the global airline industry in the past few years, cancellation of aircraft orders and escalating fuel prices have contributed to the rise in unemployed pilots. The four DCA-Approved Flying Training Organisations (AFTO) have been asked to temporarily limit their enrolment numbers to reduce the unemployment statistics.

Azharuddin clarified that becoming a helicopter pilot is one of the options for the unemployed to consider, if they have the finances.

“There are a number of off-shore operations here and I'm sure they require helicopter pilots. These unemployed pilots can also venture into jobs in airport management, airport safety, airport operations, etc. Having a CPL will help them in these jobs,” he says.

Presently, the only AFTO that offers helicopter pilot licences in Malaysia is the Asia Pacific Flight Training school (APFT).

The school churns out around 80 CPLs every year although its executive chairman Datuk Faruk Othman admits that the intake has dropped because organisations such as MARA, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia are not financing students anymore.

“If students have a CPL, it will take them another eight months and roughly RM200,000 to RM250,000 to get a helicopter licence. If they're starting from scratch, it will take around 20 months maximum and RM500,000 to complete the course.

“A career as a helicopter pilot is actually more lucrative than an airline pilot because their training is much harder. We also have students who switch course midway because they see a better future being a helicopter pilot,” says Faruk.

APFT, which began operations in 2006, started offering helicopter licences this year and thus far, the response has been good. Their instructors comprise both locals and foreigners.

“We have students from the Fire Department and I'm happy to note that local institutions have the confidence to send their students to local schools. However, the police still send their students to get their licences overseas because they think the training is better there,” observes Faruk.

Besides working in off-shore operations, helicopter pilots can opt for careers with the police, armed forces, fire department, aerial surveillance and search and rescue operations like what Britain's Prince William does.

Faruk is proud to note that APFT has a 100% accident-free track record.

“Of course, there are incidences of skidding and minor things but so far there have been no fatalities.”

APFT has also employed some of the unemployed pilots to become management trainees at the school.

Faruk says, “These are our students who have obtained their CPLs. We teach them operational duties such as flight scheduling, marketing, etc. They are here for two years and are paid a monthly salary of RM2,000 but they can leave at any time.”

The best cadets are also offered employment as flight instructors and have to undergo six months of training. Since these cadets are APFT's investment, they are bonded for four years upon completion of their training.

“Any pilot can apply for this programme but preference is given to our students,” he says.

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