Saturday, May 17, 2014

Pilot shortage cuts services, puts brakes on low-cost carriers growth

A shortage of pilots has become a serious problem for low-cost carriers (LCCs), and a major impediment to their growth.

Because of this problem, domestic budget airline Vanilla Air has decided to cancel 154 flights, which account for about 20 percent of its scheduled flights for June. Peach Aviation also plans to cancel as many as 2,000 flights through October for the same reason.

At a press conference Friday, Vanilla Air President Tomonori Ishii bowed in apology for the cancellations, saying, “We apologize sincerely.”

Vanilla Air initially planned to operate its scheduled flights with 28 pilots next month, but five of them recently left the company or have been granted leaves of absence due to illness or other reasons.

The carrier said its flight operations are expected to return to normal in July as it will be able to make use of pilots from parent company All Nippon Airways.

Meanwhile, Peach Aviation’s reduction of flights will start Monday. Eight of its 52 pilots have become unable to carry out their work due to illness or injury. It is also struggling to hire new pilots.

Such a manpower shortage is attributable to the rapidly growing number of LCCs. Kansai Airport-based Peach, the nation’s first LCC, began operations in March 2012.

Jetstar Japan and AirAsia Japan, which has now been rebranded as Vanilla Air, then went into service, operating out of Narita Airport. Last year, LCC passengers accounted for 6 percent of total passengers on domestic flights.

According to the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, with a series of LCCs having been established, 164 more pilots were needed in 2013, compared with the 2011 level. Demand for pilots is expected to grow further, with as many as an additional 351 pilots projected to be sought in 2015.

Training pilots usually takes about 10 years. Previously, LCCs secured enough pilots through measures such as hiring staff from Japan Airlines, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010.

Major carriers ANA and JAL have enough pilots, but LCCs have found it difficult to operate services smoothly in line with the rapid expansion of their flight schedules, according to a source familiar with the aviation industry.

Significant differences in working conditions for pilots between major airlines and LCCs are another contributing factor.

One estimate shows the Asia-Pacific region would see a shortage of 9,000 pilots in 2030, with air travel rising globally. In Japan, about 7,000 pilots are forecast to be sought in 2020, an increase of 20 to 30 percent from the current level. As of January 2013, the number of domestic pilots totaled 5,686. Of those, pilots from the state-affiliated Civil Aviation College made up 39.9 percent, while those trained by private airline companies accounted for 34.3 percent. Training one pilot costs a carrier tens of millions of yen, and training expertise is also required. Securing both money and expertise is a great challenge for LCCs.

Out of concern over the acute shortage of pilots, the government has encouraged Self-Defense Forces pilots to move into the private sector, although it previously suspended such career changes. It is also considering simplifying procedures for foreign pilots to work at Japanese airlines. To ease the shortage, hopes are high for pilot training courses launched by private universities from the 2006 academic year. But the universities have struggled to attract enough students because of high tuition fees, and the number of the students taking the courses has been below the number they initially sought.

Waseda University Prof. Hajime Tozaki, an aviation expert, said, “We can expect an improvement in services as well as fare cuts as the launch of LCCs intensifies competition.”

But he added, “A manpower shortage could become a barrier that prevents the industry from growing.”


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