Not too long ago, several aviation directors asked me to write about pilot training, particularly the lack of initial and recurrent training slots. They say it’s hindering their hiring efforts, which we at API have also experienced as their recruiting partner.
Flight departments are finding that they’ve been forced to hire tactically versus strategically. “Now, I’ve got to hire somebody who’s plug-and-play and typed on my aircraft,” a director told me. That is, instead of focusing primarily on the right person for the company, culture, and team—and then getting them typed on the aircraft.
So I sought to explore the issue. Specifically, I wanted to know what’s going on at the training organizations and how aviation directors might be able to help them find a solution.
Recently, I had a conversation with Benoit Rocheleau, CAE’s head of operations for business aviation and helicopter training for the Americas. He is responsible for ensuring that CAE has the right number of instructors and simulators ready to support the increasing demand for business pilot training.
[Editor’s note: FlightSafety International did not respond to the author’s requests for input on this blog.]
How Did We Get Here
There are a handful of issues that affect pilot training. First and foremost, is the pilot shortage and the fact that higher-paying jobs are luring instructor pilots from training providers. That adds to the challenge of being able to recruit instructors for pilot training. (At CAE, it takes upward of 16 months to fully train an examiner who signs off on the simulator check.)
There’s also an increase in pilot training from both Part 135 and Part 91 operators, with new aircraft being purchased to accommodate the increase in passengers.
“During the pandemic, people tried business aviation, and now they love it and want to hold on to it,” said Rocheleau. “That’s great for the industry but it created a lot of challenges because of the prevailing pilot shortage and, now, of course, many operators are seeing a lot of growth.”
With new aircraft, there’s a greater need for initial rather than recurrent training. When you have a more mature market—for example, more experienced pilots flying older aircraft—recurrent training is in greater demand. And recurrent training sessions require around one week, whereas an initial training course can be two to four weeks. This change in customer need is obviously affecting training providers’ capacity, as well as their scheduling.
The industry is also seeing churn. That’s to say, pilots are retiring, which is a normal development, but there’s also the issue of many qualified pilots moving to the airlines or to other jobs within the business aviation sector. Thus, compensation and staffing levels have continued to increase to attract and retain new hires.
Challenges Within Pilot Training Providers
I wondered if the uptick in demand for Part 135 charter flights is affecting training availability for Part 91 operators. But Rocheleau explained that training companies such as CAE have been focused on delivering a higher number of training for all their customers. “We’re seeing growth in both Part 91 and 135 operators—not necessarily one taking from the other,” he said.
“The challenge on our side is, to train the pilot, we need to have the right qualified instructor,” Rocheleau said. “That within the Americas, CAE is net-positive on our recruiting efforts. We have the people. Our primary obstacle is that training and qualifying an instructor requires many steps and time.”
Translation: it takes quite a while to get someone up to speed. It’s about three months for an instructor pilot to finish their type rating and ground school or simulator training. They then need to have 100 hours to run the panel of the simulator and 12 months in type before being eligible to become an examiner.
“So our challenge is that there’s about a 16-month window before we can enlist a new examiner who can do the simulator check,” Rocheleau explained. “Oftentimes, the challenge doesn’t involve the equipment. In very busy programs there’s more demand on the simulators and on having the right instructor. A lot of effort involves having the right instructor and the right level of examiner to teach and to check our clients.”
As you can see, the coordination of all this is very complicated.
Here at API, we recently had a client hire us to help them find a pilot for their newer Gulfstream model, but the fact is that they can’t get the pilot into a training class until January 2024. From a recruiting perspective, that situation is like asking us to find a needle in a haystack. It’s a tough conversation to have with a corporate executive v-p to say that your new pilot can start in August but cannot fly the aircraft until January.
So is there enough training equipment for the demand? It depends on the program, Rocheleau told me. “Some aircraft simulators were nearing capacity, which is why the recent opening of our new training center in Las Vegas brought excitement to both CAE and the industry,” he said.
Early next year, CAE will open another training center in Savannah, Georgia, that will focus on Gulfstream training. And they’ll also deploy a new business aviation training facility in Vienna, Austria.
CAE’s additional training centers will increase capacity across the globe to help with demand. In fact, they deployed seven full-flight simulators in Las Vegas last year.
Rocheleau continued, “These new centers, coupled with many internal initiatives to attract and retain instructors, will help alleviate some of the growing pains being felt in the industry today.”
Solving the Issue
Recently, CAE implemented several initiatives that will contribute to the increased availability of training slots. The programs will help improve schedule stability, which is vital to being able to offer a good balance for their instructors.
They’ve also deployed an artificial intelligence model to review scheduling behavior trends, looking at last-minute cancellations and who’s overbooking based on the volume of aircraft. Using that technology, they’re able to have proactive discussions with customers.
So what can aviation operators do to help solve the pilot training issue? The following are a few recommendations to help when it comes to managing scheduling within your flight department:
- Retain your people. First and foremost, focus on keeping your team members well paid and working a balanced schedule. In doing so, your chances of having the unpleasant surprise of pilots leaving for better, higher-paying jobs are significantly reduced. From our experience, it takes up to three months or more to hire a replacement pilot. And that doesn’t even include the onboarding process.
- Expand the number of locations where you’re willing to train to access more training availability.
- Stay close to your [pilot training] salesperson. There’s a lot of last-minute movement that you could potentially fill if you have any flexibility.
- Give back slots if you’re more than one month out from hiring someone. Also, don’t forget to cancel before it’s too late.
- Try to train early to avoid expiring. Or consider rebaselining by changing your base month—to either one more before or after—to potentially take advantage of additional capacity.
- Fill the open slot with an existing employee who has the potential to be promoted to a higher aircraft type.
- Send pilots in pairs versus a single pilot. If you train with a buddy, the provider can maximize the slot and not have to look for another pairing. Otherwise, you’re limiting your options and might have a harder time finding capacity.
- Consider sending an established pilot to be a sim partner with your new pilot. Again, this helps in scheduling and increases your availability to get into a simulator sooner.
When Will Training Slots Open Up?
So the big question is: when will the supply of training options open up? The answer is that it depends. As Rocheleau said, “Some of our busier programs today, where we have a lot of new deployments and a lot of instructors in training, will find some relief coming over the next few months.”
Again, he stressed the need to stay close to your training account manager as updates change quickly.
And, by all means, don’t wait until you’re in your grace month to schedule training! Rocheleau advises you to book your training early.
As a recruiter, my advice is that if you’re still a month out from a new hire’s start date, that pilot won’t be ready for training. So please consider exchanging your slot now and let your training company have a chance at reselling it. Otherwise, if you cancel too late, everybody loses.
And that’s what I really want this to be about. It’s more a question of: how do we all win? We win with transparency and partnership, and sometimes we must give a little to get anything accomplished.
Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of both NBAA’s board of directors and advisory council.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.