The shortage of pilots being faced by US airlines has been a recurrent theme of aviation’s recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, and it seems there is no quick fix. This week United Airlines chief executive Scott Kirby warned that the dearth of aviators could put a brake on the industry’s growth for five years, and his counterpart at Alaska Airlines called the problem “one of the biggest constraints” for operators.
Kirby points to the discrepancy between the 5,000 and 7,000 pilots that traditionally qualify each year, and the 13,000 that airlines have said they need in 2022 alone. United is among a number of carriers that have launched their own training programmes during the pandemic, but Kirby says getting pilots to the 25 hours they need for a licence is only part of the solution. US regulators require 1,500 hours of flying time before new first officers are permitted to pilot an airliner.
Of course, what is happening in the USA is not replicated around the world. While some regions have seen a rapid rebound in flying hours, China is determined to continue its zero-Covid strategy. A strong domestic market saw its airlines enjoy a limited recovery back in 2020, but fresh waves of infections, coupled with an aggressive lockdown policy, mean traffic figures for China’s three largest airlines have plummeted back to levels last seen as the pandemic took hold in early 2020.
In Hong Kong, in a bizarre piece of timing, the airport authority announced this week that its third runway would be ready for operations later in the year. The work is part of a massive expansion project unveiled in 2016 to prepare the airport for soaring travel demand. The trouble is – thanks to Hong Kong’s strict Covid restrictions – the city remains shut to most of the world, with only 94,000 passengers using the airport in March, compared with 6.4 million the same month in 2019.
Eight years on, one of aviation’s great modern mysteries – the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in 2014 – appears to be no closer to being solved. A new round of data analysis has failed to find the remains of the Boeing 777-200ER on the bottom of the Indian Ocean. The latest search covered a 4,900km² area of the seabed using high-resolution sonar datasets generated during the original investigation.
Russia’s attempts to maintain a domestic aviation network and a commercial aerospace sector continue to suffer setbacks due to international sanctions. Regulators have warned that the country’s decision to transfer 571 of 781 Western-built passenger aircraft to the domestic register is both illegal and a safety risk. Meanwhile, Moscow has been forced to set aside 100 billion rubles – the equivalent of $1.2 billion – to support the country’s airlines.
Russia has its own manufacturing industry which, in theory, could replace Airbus and Boeing aircraft, but almost all Soviet-era legacy types are long out of production. Service entry of the Irkut MC-21 narrowbody has been pushed back two years. The flagship programme was to have been powered by Pratt & Whitney Geared Turbofans, but these will be replaced by Russian Aviadvigatel PD-14 engines. Substitutes will also have to be found for a host of other Western components.
Finally, how about this for a piloting job with a difference? The British Antarctic Survey regularly flies supplies for its scientists and specialists who work at the UK base on the continent. The agency is taking on a De Havilland Canada Dash 8-300 to replace an ageing DHC-7, with Canadian outfitting firm Field Aerospace due to deliver the aircraft in 2024. Flying from Chile and the Falkland Islands, it will come with long-range fuel tanks and an interior that can be converted for medical transport.
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