CAPTAIN Abdul Hamid (not his real name) is a wanted man. With his 10 years' experience flying Boeing 747s, the 35-year-old Malaysian is in demand with several Asian and Middle Eastern airlines facing a shortage of pilots.
The expansion of aircraft fleets, especially by low-cost carriers catering to the soaring number of Asian travellers, is fuelling a strong demand for pilots across the region.
The shortage has even forced some airlines in China to curtail flights, and a few planes in India lie idle on the ground.
Airlines operating in Asia-Pacific will need at least 5,900 new pilots every year until 2025, aircraft makers Airbus and Boeing estimate.
So great is the demand that some aviation experts fear it will outstrip the capacity of the region’s flight schools to turn out qualified aviators fast enough.
Airlines are reluctant to comment on the shortage, but it is an open secret that pilots working out of Asia are being poached by Middle Eastern, Indian and Chinese carriers.
Asked about poaching, a Singapore Airlines (SIA) spokesman would only say “staff movement... is inevitable in any industry and the commercial airline business is no exception.''
But the president of the 1,600-member Air Line Pilots Association Singapore, Captain Mok Hin Choon, admits: “The shortage of pilots is an industry-wide trend in the region, including Singapore.''
In the past 21 months, Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has lost 80 pilots – 7% of its 1,200 complement – to Middle East airlines, including Emirates and Qatar Airways.
“MAS could not offer remuneration as attractive as other airlines,'' Malaysia’s Deputy Transport Minister Datuk Douglas Uggah Embas said in May.
While Singapore carriers are not desperate for pilots, the shortage is expected to be felt here as well.
Singapore has about 2,200 pilots engaged to operate about 130 aircraft owned by six locally registered airlines.
China has 11,000 pilots flying about 800 aircraft, which falls below the ideal ratio of 16 pilots per plane.
The demand is helping to push up the cost of hiring pilots. Their salaries have risen 10 to 30% in two years, analysts say.
The long training period required to produce pilots is one reason for the shortage.
“In Singapore, a recruit generally undergoes 26 to 30 months of training before he becomes a first officer at entry level,'' said Capt Mok.
To reach the rank of captain takes an average of 10 years and requires a pilot to clock more than 4,700 hours of flying time.
Singapore’s only flight school – the Singapore Flying College run by SIA – produces around 120 new pilots each year.
SIA’s two other facilities in Western Australia offer 250 places, but these are for advanced training.
SIA chief Chew Choon Seng told Orient Aviation magazine last month that “if there’s a demand ... we would be happy to look at expanding our schools. It is a growth area of the future.''
Chew does not dismiss the possibility of tapping into China’s need for pilot training. –The Straits Times/ANN