By Abdul H. Azeez
SriLankan Airlines is unable to recruit sufficient pilots to fill growing demand. A spurt of growth in the airline industry is projected to create a shortage of pilots in the near future. The growth is triggered by a positive outlook for business mostly in the Middle East and Far East.
SriLankan Airlines too is dealing with an increase in traffic, according to its CEO Manoj Gunawardene. Capacity has increased by 17-18% and more growth is expected with fresh routes opening up to India, Shanghai and Italy. Increases in flights to Europe will drive this further as winter approaches and tourist arrivals increase. According to Gunawardene, SriLankan needs to recruit 20-30 new airline pilots to fill this demand and plans to do so over the next few months and efforts are already underway.
But an official at the Airline Pilots’ Guild of Sri Lanka, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that SriLankan Airline’s efforts at filling urgent requirements for new pilots were at best, mediocre.
‘SriLankan is in urgent need of experienced pilots but they are unwilling to pay the necessary remuneration to attract good staff. Only expatriate pilots are available but the salaries offered by SriLankan have only attracted a few pilots over the age of 60 so far. Airline regulations dictate that we cannot have two pilots over the age of 60 in a cockpit at the same time’.
The acute shortage of staff has resulted in existing pilots being stretched to the limit. The official said that there is an urgent need for the airline to start offering more competitive remuneration packages to lure in the much needed experienced pilots. He says that the airline has resorted to spending large sums of money to lease planes complete with pilots to compensate.
He stressed on the need for SriLankan to adopt more savvy marketing and management strategies in order to plan for future needs appropriately. ‘There is a real need to use proper forecasts and studies in formulating our management decisions’.
Attrition of pilots
To add to this, there is a steady stream of pilots leaving SriLankan in search of greener pastures. ‘Many of our first officers have been attracted away by Middle Eastern airlines that offer them better remuneration and facilities as well as opportunities to fly the latest planes. Our training capacity cannot accommodate more than eight cadets at a time, and it takes almost nine years for them to become captains. So losing our officers creates serious gaps in our staffing,’ the official said.
However Gunawardene said, ‘It is true that in the past it was harder for us to hold on to pilots due to the volatile situation of the country, but now it is much easier. Pilots look for the overall package when selecting employers, and currently our remuneration packages are competitive enough to enable us to retain our staff. But if competitors offer better salaries, then there is a possibility that we may lose some pilots.’
He went on to say that an added incentive is provided for pilots in terms of a reduced income tax bracket courtesy the government of Sri Lanka.
Middle Eastern giant Emirates made a recent announcement that they will need 700 new pilots. The Airbus website reports that the carrier has ordered a whopping 90 of its new Airbus A380 airplanes. Airbus also says that total aircraft deliveries for this year have reached 250. The Boeing website indicates that up to 170 orders for aircraft have been received by the company so far. Air China, Virgin Blue Airlines, United Airlines and Turkish Airlines are other leading buyers looking to expand.
Demand for pilots is triggered primarily by two factors; acquisition of new airplanes for expansion and the retirement of existing pilots. A new airplane will roughly require 15-20 pilots to effectively service it.
Leading airlines usually rely on attracting staff from other established airlines to fill shortages. This will mean a battle between carriers for the best pilots. This leads to questions as to whether SriLankan Airlines will face problems when it comes to holding on to their pilots.