Monday, December 28, 2015

We'll make you a pilot – or your money back! How one British firm is planning to fill the world's shortage of aviators

England's glorious south coast from Corfe Castle to the Isle of Wight is rapidly becoming familiar territory for an increasing number of future airline pilots.

Cruising along in a Diamond DA42 Twin Star aircraft, the fabulous view of the white chalk Needles jutting up from the azure waters abeam our wing tip makes it easy to see why so many covet a career in the cockpit.

The craft is one of almost 60 operated by Southampton-based CTC Aviation, which is among the top trainers of flight crews for the world's leading airlines.

Inside the Diamond is a flying classroom with electronic instruments, digital engine controls and an autopilot, all of which helps students transition from novice aviator to first officer in an airliner.

Lining up for landing into Bournemouth Airport, the air is thick with training machines in various stages of arrival.

Many belong to CTC Aviation, which is under new ownership having just marked its 25th anniversary. Activity at Bournemouth, one of CTC's four UK sites, is a clear sign the commercial flight training industry is booming.

Following a 2012 management buy-out backed by private equity firm Inflexion, global aerospace and defence company L-3 Communications acquired CTC in May 2015, valuing the business at £140million.

Today CTC is led by chief executive Rob Clarke, a qualified airline training captain and son of the company's founder, Chris Clarke.

Every year the company trains more than 1,500 newly qualified and experienced pilots for over 40 carriers, including EasyJet, Qatar Airways, Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Dragon Air.

'Currently, no one can dispute the need for airline pilots,' Clarke says. 'Aircraft manufacturers estimate that we'll need half a million in the next 20 years.'

Such demand means CTC has just recorded its busiest year. Some 27,000 applications were lodged for pilot training courses and 226 newly-minted commercial pilots graduated in the past year.

'We're one of the largest training organisations in the world but, compared with what is required, it is clear there's a real industry issue to be dealt with,' Clarke adds.

Britain has long been recognised as a centre of excellence for flight training – although it has one of the worst climates in the world for educating fledgling flyers.

CTC overcomes this by operating a network of training bases which takes advantage of superb conditions in the US and New Zealand.

Another major challenge for the company is the cost of training for aspiring airline pilots. Clarke says this can be more than £100,000 to go from no experience to a commercial license.

Sponsorship opportunities are available in some parts of the world but in Europe the financial responsibility rests with the individual.

British Airways and EasyJet are among those with programmes to securitise loans which are repaid once a pilot is employed full-time.

Clarke reckons more airlines will offer some financial assistance, so strong is the level of demand for suitably qualified pilots, especially in fast-growing markets like the Middle East, Far East and the US.

'There are airlines where they cannot fly because they do not have enough crew,' Clarke says.

Despite the surging demand, CTC recognises that spending £100,000 or more on flight training is a large sum in anybody's money. That's why the company's selection process is so strong, Clarke insists.

'We will not put someone on a course who we do not believe is going to pass.

'Our point of difference is our 98 per cent pass rate and our ability to get people into the airlines. That is something we want to protect and we do that by increasing the quality of the guys we select, train and send to the airlines.

'If you get through your selection we will guarantee that there are no extras like exam fees.

'Plus if you fail we will give you your money back, minus our administration fee. We are trying to do our best as a training provider.'

Fundamentally the cost of training a pilot comes down to safety. Many hours are spent in simulators practising emergency procedures and learning to 'fly' the aircraft students will go on to operate in real life.

It is also about maintaining standards so that airlines are confident in the men and women entrusted with the safety of dozens of passengers.

So what kind of person makes the ideal airline pilot?

As an experienced training captain, Clarke reckons the job of flying is relatively easy.

'We are looking for individuals that have got the passion and desire – they are all very positive people. The people we are looking for are just the average person.

'Not necessarily straight-A students but someone who has a passion for the career and someone who we would be able to sit next to for nine hours in a small cockpit.

'The career of a pilot is fantastic. We need to raise the profile to enable those of all social backgrounds to realise it is an achievable career goal and in particular we must continue to make the industry more attractive to women.

'If the industry is to continue to grow sustainably then it has to recruit the best talent and cannot afford to ignore 50 per cent of the population.'

Today some 4 per cent of pilots are female. For those coming through CTC's training programs that figure rises to 9 percent.

Another imbalance Clarke wants addressed is taxation. He thinks the Government should listen to the industry's concerns about VAT levied on airline training. 'That is at odds with other personal training which is VAT-free,' he says.

To fill all those empty cockpits, Clarke wants to access untapped talent. Flipping through the company's brochures most students in crisp airline uniforms are white, male and highly likely to be from a middle class upbringing.

Clarke says that to take youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds, a solution is needed – governments must securitise loans for women or poorer students.

With a new owner in simulation experts L-3, CTC Aviation is gearing up for more growth in 2016.

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