THE BATTLE FOR THE SKIES TURNS INTO THE BATTLE FOR PILOTS
The arrival earlier in the week of another Embraer E190 jet at Kenya Airways base in Embakasi, the prospect of two more such aircraft coming to join the fleet very shortly and the apparent review of terms and conditions by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority, which is also seeking to recruit pilots as inspectors and technical experts, has put yet more pressure on the already stretched market for cockpit crews.
Airlines contacted in the region are reportedly ring fencing their pilots for fear of losing them to higher bidders but are offering little insight of their own efforts to train younger pilots, either from scratch or by offering them upgrades from their commercial pilot licenses to the ATPL level, i.e. moving them from flying single and twin engined light aircraft to turboprops and jets.
Kenya Airways is, besides Ethiopian Airlines, the only known airline in the Eastern African region with a deliberate pilot training programme, which is being carried out in various aviation institutes and supported by their introduction of simulators at their Embakasi base.
Salaries and benefit packages for qualified pilots have already rocketed in recent years and are set to further improve according to a well placed source in Nairobi.
If Kenya Airways is to double its fleet over the next few years, and right now they employ already almost 400 pilots, they might need to increase that number accordingly. Precision Air, their partner in Tanzania, is also growing fast and they too have followed KQs example. But some of the other airlines in the region, the new ones in South Sudan, in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, they are all worried. You cannot bring more aircraft if you do not have the crews to fly them and to become a First Officer, or a Captain, you need a certain number of hours flown on that type of aircraft. This varies from airline to airline but not by very much because such qualifications are literally mandatory and also under regulatory supervision. Kenya Airways recent statement that they have struck a deal with Embraer to assist them in regard of pilot training may go further in fact than just training. Embraer might supply them with Brazilian pilots as expatriates.
RwandAir is getting new aircraft and has recently announced they will also more than double their fleet in coming years. They are also using expatriate pilots while gradually bringing up Rwandans to gain experience on their smaller aircraft and smaller jets but generally recruitment is becoming more difficult, retaining crews is becoming more difficult. The biggest threat are the fast growing airlines in the Gulf. Some airline executives have played this down but it is a known fact. They recruit cabin crews, technicians, qualified handling staff and in particular pilots. Regulators therefore find it even harder to get pilots for open positions because public sector pay is poor compared to airlines and when the CAAs do not have enough qualified inspectors, they find it hard to carry out supervision which is mandated through ICAO. Our governments have been told about this for many years but even the East African Aviation Academy in Soroti (Uganda) is under equipped. Instead of investing in such facilities government ignore them for too long and then rush to put out fires. Training aircraft technicians and pilots takes years, there is no quick fix for experience. Private aviation schools are expensive and unless a young man or woman has a sponsor, they often fail to raise the funds to pay. And training abroad, like in America, is too expensive and too difficult because we Africans are all potential terrorists for them since 9/11. These were the sentiments of a senior figure in the aviation private sector in Kenya when asked to comment on this issue, painting a cloudy forecast for the finance chiefs of airlines in the region, who need to brace themselves for higher wages to recruit and retain their cockpit crews while having to save money elsewhere or else raise fares. Talk of being between a rock and a hard place!