Pilot power

A global shortage puts Latin American pilots in high demand.

In 2016, Boeing raised an alarm that, to meet demand, global aviation would require an additional 675,000 pilots by 2035. Then Covid hit. Airlines around the world began unprecedented layoff programmes, retirement plans were accelerated, and the hardest hit airlines began filing for bankruptcy. Today, even as the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us, many airlines are nowhere near pre-Covid operational capacity.

The Chairman of a Colombian airline summarised, “Border closures and sanitary measures crippled the global aviation industry and exacerbated a short supply of pilots. North America and the Middle East have been the hardest hit by this shortage of pilots and other trained personnel has coincided with a spike in demand. Latin America’s problems are less acute but now our pilots are being lured to North America and the Middle East with salaries that are multiples of what we can offer.”

“Border closures and sanitary measures crippled the global aviation industry and exacerbated a short supply of pilots.”

Chairman, Colombian airline

A member for the Union Association of Airplane Pilots of Mexico (“ASPA”) said that salaries and work conditions the region ought to increase to avoid losing talent to richer regions like the Middle East. In Mexico, Aeromexico’s monthly average salary for a pilot amount to MXN 47,425 (USD 2,354); followed by Volaris, that pays MXN 35,391 (USD 1,756). In Colombia, the average salary for a senior pilot, ranges between COP 8 million (USD 1,800) and COP 17 million (USD 3,820).

The relative resilience of Latin America’s aviation industry was echoed in a recent Oliver Wyman report that expected Latin America’s pilot problems to be less acute than the most affected regions, namely the Middle East and North America. Still, the region needs to train and attract new pilots as local airlines are expected to renew 60% of their fleets over the next two decades. Leading airline carriers like AeroMexico, Avianca and LATAM are also expected to open routes to new markets as cutting-edge aircraft models such as the Airbus 787 Dreamliner enable direct flights to new destinations. By way of example, Aeromexico recently started operating a Mexico City-Tokyo route.

An executive at ASPA explained that Latin America’s aviation industry is a tale of two halves, “Paradoxically, while many airlines went bankrupt due to the pandemic, many others have thrived. For example, Ultra Air in Colombia and Equair in Ecuador. These airlines took advantage of the low cost of aircraft and the crisis in the sector to find a place in the market where demand is increasing. In this way, they were also able to attract personnel who had been laid off on competitive terms. We expect these new low-cost airlines in Latin America to do very well in the coming years.”

“Paradoxically, while many airlines went bankrupt due to the pandemic, many others have thrived. We expect these new low-cost airlines in Latin America to do very well in the coming years.”

Executive, Union Association of Airplane Pilots of Mexico

Indeed, a recent analysis from Airbus estimates that Latin America passenger traffic will double over the next two decades. If this materialises, the region would need 2,460 additional aircraft akin to the medium-sized Airbus A-320 model to meet the demand. Colombia, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil are expected to spearhead the increase in regional flights.

These industry trends will obviously lead to further demand for pilots. “Hiring and training new pilots is expensive and takes time,” explained the Chairman of the Colombia airline, “investment is needed in training centres, simulators, salaries, employee benefits and inclusive policies that allow the industry to be stabilise.” Some of the demand could be met by training and hiring more female pilots continued the Chairman, “We need more women in the aviation industry, and not just as flight attendants. Avianca, LATAM and Sky Airlines have taken this very seriously and all have well developed programmes to attract more females into the industry.”

Evidently, the pandemic has changed the landscape for pilots in Latin America – initially hard hit they now find themselves as some of the most sought-after employees globally.

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