Flying might seem like an obvious career path when you share a name with Sydney’s only major airport. But it wasn’t until Alex Kingsford-Smith came across an ad on Facebook that he seriously considered following in his legendary great-great uncle’s footsteps. The 24-year-old says his family connection with one of history’s greatest aviators, Charles Kingsford-Smith – who piloted the first ever flight from the United States to Australia – was not a big deal growing up. His grandfather John flew Kittyhawks in the Pacific in World War II but he and his two brothers were the last pilots in the family until a bit over a year ago when, fed up with his automotive career, Alex Kingsford-Smith moved to Melbourne to begin training for his commercial pilot’s licence at Soar Aviation, based at Moorabbin Airport. “I came across an ad on Facebook about getting a pilot’s licence, and I guess I had the connection to it … and that was really all it was,” he explains.
Flying might seem like an obvious career path when you share a name with Sydney’s only major airport.
But it wasn’t until Alex Kingsford-Smith came across an ad on Facebook that he seriously considered following in his legendary great-great uncle’s footsteps.
The 24-year-old says his family connection with one of history’s greatest aviators, Charles Kingsford-Smith – who piloted the first ever flight from the United States to Australia – was not a big deal growing up.
His grandfather John flew Kittyhawks in the Pacific in World War II but he and his two brothers were the last pilots in the family until a bit over a year ago when, fed up with his automotive career, Alex Kingsford-Smith moved to Melbourne to begin training for his commercial pilot’s licence at Soar Aviation, based at Moorabbin Airport.
“I came across an ad on Facebook about getting a pilot’s licence, and I guess I had the connection to it … and that was really all it was,” he explains.
A century after Charles Kingsford-Smith took his first solo flight in 1917, his great-great nephew took his, describing it as “the biggest sense of accomplishment that I’ve ever had”.
“I’d hope they’d be proud of me for doing it,” he says of his flying forefathers. “That’s where I get a lot of my personal motivation from, that’s for sure.”
Yet while Kingsford-Smith reboots an aviation dynasty, the industry globally can only wish there were more like him. In Australia, airlines say a shortage of skilled pilots is grounding services and threatening vital lifelines to remote and regional communities.
Boeing estimates the world will need to produce 640,000 pilots over the next 20 years as rising middle-class wealth in developing nations sees the number of passengers double to 8 billion.
About 40 per cent of those pilots will be needed in the Asia Pacific region.
Competition for skilled pilots is becoming fierce. Those employed at Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar or Tigerair say they can easily double their wages by moving to China, where desperate carriers are offering as much as $400,000 a year tax-free.
But the number of pilots Australia produces is falling, from about 1700 pilot’s licences issued annually a decade ago to 1200 last year.
Cracks are starting to appear at small operators and regional carriers, with larger players poaching pilots to fill positions as they roll out new routes and new aircraft and in some instances lose their own pilots to better-paying carriers overseas.
“Major carriers are raping and pillaging the resources of the smaller regional carriers and general aviation,” says Regional Express (Rex) Airlines chief operating officer Neville Howell, who has lost a quarter of his pilots in the past year, mostly to Qantas and Virgin.
Rex has had to cut back services to some of the 60 regional and remote destinations it serves while it tries to replace the pilots it has lost, threatening a vital lifeline for many communities.
“We will protect those very remote communities as best we can … but we can’t do the impossible,” Howell says.
Rex set up its own pilot academy in Wagga Wagga 10 years ago to meet its need for pilots, after a previous hiring spree by Qantas and Virgin cut a swath through its business.
But Howell says Rex now can’t recruit or train pilots fast enough to cover the numbers lost to the major carriers.
Howell accuses the major carriers of being “reckless and negligent” in managing their future need for pilots.
“I’m not saying they can’t take our pilots – a lot of our pilots aspire to fly with the Qantas and Virgin groups, and that’s a healthy ambition,” he says.
“But they cannot just assume a ‘not our problem’ approach … to the impact their actions have on what is effectively their resource pool. If there ain’t a resource pool to draw from, there’s going to be nothing for them.”
He points to rules in China, where carriers are compensated when their pilots are poached by another airline, as an example of what could be done to better manage supply of pilots locally.
The Royal Flying Doctors Service’s CEO Martin Laverty says the service is taking an average of four months to fill positions, and has about a dozen current vacancies nationwide.
“This is the canary in the coalmine moment,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate that the vacancies have not yet turned into service interruptions.”
Laverty says the industry needs to find a solution to make it easier for young people to “get their wings”.
Training privately for a commercial pilot’s licence can cost up to $100,000 – an amount some say is prohibitive considering graduates will go into general aviation jobs with starting salaries of about $50,000.
The nation’s largest airline, Qantas, says that it is not immune to the squeeze and had to cut back services on routes in regional Queensland and NSW late last year because it was running short on pilots. (It has been able to fly the same number of passengers by using larger planes on the services that remain.)
Qantas has now applied to the federal government for a labour agreement so it can bring foreign pilots into the country to fly for its regional arm, QantasLink, on four-year visas, which will also grant the pilots permanent Australian residency.
It expects to hire up to 295 senior pilots and simulator instructors over five years using the visas, which the federal government is considering.
At the same time, Qantas says it plans to have its own pilot school up and running by the end of next year, training up to 100 pilots a year to supply its own network. It is also partnered with universities on a new training scheme.
Qantas chief pilot Richard Tobiano says that airlines worldwide have been hit by the demand for pilots and the airline’s priority was to ensure it had “a steady supply of highly skilled and qualified pilots undergoing training to meet future demand”.
But pilots’ unions are pushing back against Qantas’ request to hire foreign pilots and dispute that there even is a shortage.
Simon Lutton, president of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, which has about 5000 members including over 90 per cent of QantasLink pilots, says what Australia is in fact seeing is a short-term “blockage” in the pilot-training pipeline. That blockage, he says, is of Qantas’ own making.
“Just three years ago the operators were saying that they had an oversupply of pilots and now they’re saying there’s a pilot shortage,” Lutton says, also pointing to Qantas’ eight-year hiring freeze, imposed even as it ordered new aircraft.
He says a major issue Qantas has in retaining pilots is that there is no clear career pathway from its regional operations through to mainline Qantas and Jetstar operations.
That means regional pilots will jump at the first chance to take a job flying jet aircraft, because they do not know when they will have the opportunity again.
A group-wide seniority system, which the Virgin Group has, would allow pilots to serve longer in regional operations without feeling they were missing opportunities to progress their careers, he says.
Lutton says a labour agreement would be “essentially selling off residency to fix the problem”, which will fix itself in time regardless. “It’s a short-term fix and that will create obstacles for future pilots coming in behind them for years to come.”
For its part, Virgin has enough pilots currently, says the group’s director of flight operations Stuart Aggs, thanks to its managed recruitment process which since 2012 has included a cadetship program that has produced 32 new pilots.
Major jet airlines and smaller regional carriers are the top tiers in Australia’s aviation ecosystem which has, for the most part, existed symbiotically and successfully to get people around our vast and sparsely populated country.
But many in the industry are alarmed at what they say is a crisis at the bottom tier of that ecosystem – “general aviation”, which covers everything from small charter operators and flying cropdusters to flying as a pilot instructor.
General aviation has long been the first step on a path to becoming a fully-fledged pilot able to operate commercial jets.
But the number of training hours being flown in general aviation fell 43 per cent between 2008 and 2015, according to the most recently available government data.
The culprit is “ridiculous” and expensive regulation imposed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), according to businessman Dick Smith, who was chair of the nation’s air safety body from 1990 to 1992 and again from 1997 to 1999.
“We just departed Bourke, and we arrived in there and there was one little aeroplane,” Smith tells Fairfax Media, typically, from the cockpit of his helicopter, en route to the NSW town of Coonamble.
“There used to be a flying club and it used to be booming, but most of these airports are almost dead.”
The near destruction of general aviation was “absolutely” a cause of any shortages of pilots airlines were seeing, Smith says.
“Traditionally our pilots have come from general aviation where they get about 1000 hours of experience in the bush, and then they go on to airlines.”
Smith says he was given assurances from the former deputy prime minister and transport minister Barnaby Joyce late last year that he was open to legislative change to make CASA consider costs to operators and industry sustainability, not just safety.
But Smith says that went out the window with Joyce’s replacement in both roles by Michael McCormack.
CASA says it is listening to these complaints and that work is underway to ease the regulatory burden on the sector, including fee reviews and licence changes.
While global demand for pilots is creating headaches, some, like Neel Khokhani, see opportunities for both him and Australia.
Khokhani founded Soar Aviation – where Alex Kingsford-Smith is studying – six years ago when he was just 22, and has built it into what he says is Australia’s largest private flying school, with 45 planes and 100 employees.
He says part of his business’ rapid success – and potentially part of the solution to the current pilot shortage – was opening the career up to more diverse candidates, rather than focusing on school leavers and university graduates as pilot schools have typically done.
Soar offers the course part-time over two years and is deliberately targeting candidates already in the workforce and looking for a career change.
“We’ve got a doctor who’s learning to fly and wants to move across to being a pilot, we’ve got a mother-daughter duo in Sydney and they’re both learning to fly in the same classroom,” Khokhani says.
“So we’ve got a varied demographic that would have never been given this option in the past.”
Khokhani says he sees great potential for Australia to not only train the pilots it needs but, with education already our biggest export, for pilot training to become a major industry to meet booming global demand.
“Australia is known as one of the best producers of pilots globally, so why can’t we do more?”