SYDNEY -- As air travel continues to skyrocket and more budget carriers take to the skies, especially in Asia, airlines are racing to train new pilots and scrambling to retain more experienced ones amid a worsening pilot shortage.
The lack of pilots has airlines pushing to get more airborne as quickly as possible to meet rising passenger levels, meaning less-skilled pilots at the controls and growing concern over falling safety standards.
Boeing estimates 790,000 new pilots will be needed in the 20 years to 2037, of which about 260,000 will be used to meet burgeoning demand in the Asia-Pacific region, especially China.
Abdulla Al Hammadi, vice president of Emirates Flight Training Academy in Dubai, says aviation academies must churn out at least 80 graduates every day to satisfy global demand.
Opened in 2017, the academy currently has 200 trainees and wants to double that number by 2020. Ultimately, it hopes to train 600 pilots at a time.
In Australia, Virgin Australia Airlines, the country's second-largest carrier, is planning to open a flight school in the city of Tamworth and operate it with the help of a pilot academy owned by China's HNA Group. "The Australian International Aviation College is our preferred partner to operate the Tamworth facility," said a Virgin official.
Still, the level of expertise and technology needed to run a flight school means only a handful of airlines can operate their own training centers.
Other carriers are raising salaries and increasing benefits to lure or retain experienced pilots. Indian discount carrier IndiGo is poaching pilots from cash-strapped carriers by offering to pay delinquent salaries owed by their current employers.
South Korean airlines are also dangling better pay packages. The poaching has become so aggressive that the industry, fearful of rising labor costs, has asked the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport to intervene.
Airlines in China are taking a different approach by making it easier for pilots to fly. Air China recently eased its height requirements to between 168 cm and 188 cm from the previous 170 cm to 185 cm. Some of its competitors have relaxed other standards, including eyesight requirements.
Japan's largest airlines, ANA Holdings and Japan Airlines, are also moving to hire more pilots to handle the increase of foreign visitors to the country. Meanwhile, regional carrier ANA Wings and ANA's budget airline Peach Aviation have started recruiting pilot trainees.
According to the International Air Transport Association, the total number of air passengers worldwide is expected to reach 4.59 billion in 2019, up 38% from 2014. A large part of this increase is due to the growing ranks of middle-income earners, especially in Asia, where budget airlines are helping the upwardly mobile travel overseas for the first time.
The acute pilot shortage has even caused flight cancellations. Flybe, a low-cost carrier in the U.K., was forced to cancel a number of flights in April, while in 2017 Ireland's Ryanair grounded a large number of flights, stranding 400,000 passengers.
Peter Harbison, chairman emeritus at the Australia-based Center for Aviation, said airlines might try to assign only one pilot to routes that currently require two or more.
"Demand is growing fast," said Hideki Kazama, a senior analyst at Tokyo-based Japan Aviation Management Research. "This may cause airlines to hire people who they would normally reject, significantly boosting their costs due to increased training expenses."