The pause or cessation of at least one major airline cadet program in the EU has left several large aviation academies informing students in the program of the significant costs to transition over to a different MPL or ATPL course. Other flight training organizations see opportunity in the midst of a rapidly changing industry.
With furloughs and layoffs dominating the passenger airlines over the summer of 2020—and into the autumn months, with thousands of pilots given notice on October 1—the turnaround from a pilot shortage to a packed pipeline comes as little surprise. Just one year ago, a dearth of pilots entering the workforce—combined with continuing retirements as older pilots aged out of the system—fostered the creation of a portfolio of programs by regional and major airlines around the world to entice cadets into training specifically for a single airline.
Many of these programs have been based on a standard, integrated ATPL program—in which a student passes theory examinations and completes between 180 and 240 hours of flight and simulator training—coming out at the end with a commercial/multiengine certificate and a “frozen” ATPL allowing them to finish up the full licensing with the airline that eventually hires them. Others followed an MPL program that is more restricted—and often tied almost inextricably to a job offer at a given airline.
So when major European airlines, such as easyJet based in the UK, gave indications that they would pause or discontinue their cadet programs beginning this summer, a wave of unease turned into reality as those predictions came to pass. One of the major academies hit by these changes, L3Harris Airline Academy—based in the UK with locations in the US, Portugal, and New Zealand—found itself in a tight spot as cadets on one of those MPL programs lost their key to completion of a license—final training with the airline—under the initial terms of their agreements with the airline and academy.
Reports of cadets being forced to accept substantial costs in order to transition their training from the MPL program to another—or to take their training elsewhere—prompted Flying to contact L3Harris for its response to the situation, as well as other training providers in the region. In a statement posted on the company website, L3Harris reported, “No additional costs have been asked of any cadet to continue on their existing training programme. We are continuing to work with the regulatory authorities and airlines to determine the most effective solution for the cadets affected.” Follow-up questions to the company provided the following from a company spokesperson: “The airlines have agreed to continue to sponsor the MPL, as required by the regulator, as such all cadets can continue on their programme should they wish. Further to this, updated information has been provided to cadets on an MPL course surrounding the issue of a Restricted Type Rating (without Base Training) following confirmation from the CAA. This allows cadets to complete their course without the airline providing the base training.”
Should the cadets wish to convert to an ATPL, the cost of conversion varies dependent on the stages of training they have already completed, with the amount of additional training determined by the CAA. This course of action is entirely at the cadet’s discretion. Clearly, should a cadet have completed the vast majority of their MPL training already [as was the case in the example circulated] the conversion option is unlikely to be as attractive as it would be to a MPL cadet at an early stage of their training course. However, we wanted to be open with the information to the cadets and therefore provided all of the options and associated costs to all cadets, ensuring they had the full picture to make an informed decision. There are no MPL programmes being operated [in the Portugal location] under the ANAC approved training organisation.”
However, a particularly unfortunate situation had already been brewing at the company’s location at Aerodrome Ponte de Sor (LPSO) in Portugal, where reports of training delays included difficulty attracting and retaining qualified instructors. The retraction of airline cadet programs has exacerbated the situation, leaving cadets in a difficult position. L3Harris responded to this as well: “We continue to carefully manage the cadet to instructor ratio at the Academy in Portugal. Only one instructor has left that location in 2020 with new instructors brought on as required.”
Carlos Amaro, general manager for Sevenair Academy in Tires, Portugal, based at the Cascais Municipal Aerodrome (LPCS), outside of Lisbon, observed the situation as it developed through the spring and summer. “What we were not expecting—no one was—was that an academy with the international dimension and reputation, like the one that operates in Ponte de Sor, would decide to simply break the contracts of 130 cadets, halfway through their courses, leaving those to find alternatives to fulfill their courses within EASA deadlines. We were not insensitive; we could not be. Thus, we presented an alternative to these students and received those we could, who accepted our conditions.”
There may be a silver lining out there, as the return to commercial passenger flying stages a comeback—however incremental it seems at this point. According to the newly published Boeing Commercial Market Outlook 2020-2039, there’s a marked retracement in the number of new airline platforms projected for delivery in the next 20 years—a decrease of 2.2 percent from 2019′s 20-year projections—but there will still be a need for pilots throughout multiple segments of the aviation industry. The company’s Pilot and Technician Outlook, recently released for the same period, states, “While the current industry downturn, driven by COVID-19, has resulted in a temporary oversupply of qualified personnel, the long-term need remains robust. In recent decades, aviation has experienced external forces that have affected demand, such as 9/11, SARS and the Great Financial Crisis. Recovery has generally followed several years later, as the fundamentals driving passenger and air traffic demand remain strong.”
Sevenair represents one of those academies that have made such investments for the long term. “Sevenair Academy has made a big bet in the last 4 years, investing heavily in the sector after an internal restructuring that led to the acquisition of a new fleet, a new image, new facilities, a new approach to the domestic and foreign market. The return on this investment was rewarded by the exhaustion of our training capacity, but we maintained the firm intention of not exceeding our capacity. This policy resulted in waiting lists of more than 1 year for cadets to be able to join our courses, and we stood by these measures. Of course, we observed the market, which before COVID was full of demand, and we received hundreds of requests to transfer cadets from other academies, who realized that they would have great difficulties in finishing their courses within EASA deadlines, due to a notable lack of means. Unfortunately, we were unable to host them at our academy, as this would frustrate our own production control policy.”
Optimism comes from new entrants into the flight training industry as well, those who propose to bring insights from other business development into aviation training organizations. One of those new leaders who sees opportunity amidst the current landscape is Alex Alvarez, CEO of FlyBy, now based in Borgos and Soria, Spain. Alvarez joined the aviation industry in 2014 from a career in construction engineering, and he has applied his experience serving customers as well as solving detailed, complex problems to the development of an ATO serving the Iberian Peninsula and beyond.
“For my 40th birthday I took a discovery flight in the UK,” said Alvarez, while he was based there, and he was hooked. He became general manager for an ATO based at Madrid-Cuatro Vientos Airport (LECU), QualityFly, but found that applying his concepts to an existing business was fraught with roadblocks and resistance. FlyBy, then in Bilbao, was bankrupt at the time of his consortium’s purchase of the entity—but it held critical approvals that would help launch the project he envisioned.
Five years later, the ATO has seen growth from the 30 to 40 local students annually to more than 200 from more than 50 nationalities this year, fueled in part by the crossover of cadets wanting to continue training outside of the bespoke airline programs currently on hold. The demand has led FlyBy to open a new base, in Soria, about two hours northeast of Madrid and not far from the main base in Borgos.
FlyBy has based its expansion on a few key elements that are critical—and difficult—to get right. First and foremost is the relationship with the students, and the provision for the elements they need to succeed. When FlyBy pursued a new base, “the first question was accommodation,” said Alvarez, with the amenities needed for students to thrive. Second, detailed attention to the training schedule, which FlyBy sets a week in advance—expecting students to come to the airport whether they are planning to fly or not. Next, cost-effective fleet operations: FlyBy utilizes a 19-aircraft training fleet, based on the Czech Cruiser Aircraft’s P28 light sport, two-seat airplane with glass up front. Alvarez has been impressed by both the durability of the model as well as the company’s attention to any AOG issues.
Finally—an ace in the hole—FlyBy is an exam center for the region, providing 780 pilot exams in 2019, and on track for 1,000 in 2020. Alvarez notes a 91-percent pass rate for its students—and the ability to schedule those exams as little as two weeks in advance, as opposed to farther out. The integrated ATPL program is truly that—while other ATOs complete theory training before beginning the flight sessions, FlyBy’s program has students flying within weeks—and often first solo comes before the end of the second month of flying, during the fourth month of training. The motivation this provides makes sense for Alvarez.
As Amaro concludes, “Other academies, some emerging in the Iberian Peninsula, will see this as a great business opportunity, and they have managed to respond in a financially very aggressive way to this unusual market. I hope that, once again, the desire to do business at any cost is not the relevant factor for these cadets already so deceived and martyred, and that everything will end well for them. Sevenair Academy will continue its chosen path, with more investment and in the certainty of consolidating its position of reference in Portugal and in the world of aviation in general.”
As the pandemic passes, and commercial aviation achieves a post-COVID state, it will remain to be seen whether these investments pay off. Without a doubt, though, those who are able to continue training through the downturn will be those poised best to capitalize on the next upswing, given aviation’s cyclical nature.