United States – Former Pilot Training Provider to the World?

The United States has been the world leader in training pilots for many years, but the words “has been” might be more applicable in the near future than we might desire. As airlines expand in international markets, a strong desire to employ domestically trained and resident pilots is spurring growth of in-country training infrastructure outside the United States. This is going to have an effect on the amount of training that is conducted in the United States for non-US citizens over the upcoming decades along with providing opportunities overseas for skilled training providers or instructors seeking to help develop infrastructure outside the United States. Some are already taking advantage of this opportunity. More should consider doing so.

As we consider pilot training around the world, it typically falls under either FAA, JAA, or EASA regulations (some detail about the main differences in these regulations can be found at “JAA v FAA: An Overview of Aviation Regulation” – http://www.newjurist.com/overview-of-aviation-regulation.html if you want to learn a little more). For most people, the FAA regulations are the least cumbersome when it comes to training and make it easier and most cost effective for many training programs. This however doesn’t mean that FAR based training is only offered in the United States. While most European countries train under EASA or JAA regulations, many countries in other parts of the world operate under FAA regulations (or modified versions of FAA regulations as adopted to each country and in compliance with ICAO agreements and requirements). In these places, training could easily be developed to compete with what is currently provided in the United States. The effects on the training environment in the United States are difficult to quantify, but not so difficult at which to speculate.

Pilot training has been considered something that takes place in “developed” countries. What many forget is that many countries are developing. And as they do so, their infrastructure to provide competitive services to those that we have provided in the United States is improved, expanded, and may even be better suited to the needs of other countries or regions.

Countries that historically did not have an expansive training infrastructure are developing one. The goal of many is to develop in-country training capacity to meet domestic and regional airline needs. In the past, the training for pilots of many of these airlines was (and currently much of it still is) conducted here in the United States. Training providers in Florida, Arizona, California, and Texas saw large numbers of international students who come in to complete the first stages of their training. This is done because the infrastructure here was more conducive to economically and efficiently completing the training, which typically included private pilot, instrument pilot, commercial pilot, and multi-engine training. Most then go back home to complete an ATP (or equivalent) certificate and enter into service in an airline as a professional pilot.

In many cases, the provision of training to foreign students is a significant percentage of a company’s overall business. Even recently, we find an example in an article, “Flight Safety is flying high these days thanks to a student body from around the world” (http://www.tcpalm.com/news/2014/jan/22/international-flair/), showing how much international student training is taking place. Some estimates put the amount of training being conducted in the United States at over 30% of the overall number of pilot certificates issued in the United States each year.

So what you might ask? Well, what if it goes away? The training that U.S. business provide to international students is not only represents a significant financial portion of the U.S. aviation industry, it is also the stepping stone from which many U.S. pilots gain enough experience to enter into service as professional pilots in U.S. airlines.

To gain enough experience to meet minimum hiring or regulatory requirements (which we know have increased significantly in the U.S.) many pilots seeking professional pilot careers work as flight instructors (many times for international students). As in-country capacity for training is developed in other nations, it is logical to think that much of this training will flow back out of the U.S. to home countries. This will leave U.S. pilots (acting as instructors) with fewer students to teach and they will gain experience while teaching. Their options will either be to find other ways to gain experience or if they are savvy, to go overseas and instruct in foreign countries.

This can be easier in some places and harder in others. In countries that use exact or very similar regulations to FARs under which U.S. pilots and instructors were trained transition is easier. Where JAA or EASA regulations are in place, the transition would take more work.

An opportunity exists here. For experienced and qualified instruction professionals, helping to develop training in other countries can be a wise career and business move. Taking the chance at moving overseas and working with others can not only help share the experience our U.S. aviation system has built, but it can also be lucrative for those that are willing and able to travel and move. A few U.S. aviation professionals have already done this, helping spur the development of training infrastructure in other regions.

Regulatory considerations aren’t the only thing to think about. Overall aviation infrastructure, costs to send students overseas for training, and costs of operation all make a difference in the costs of training and its overall efficiency.

Let’s take Saudi Arabia for example. The regulations in Saudi Arabia are FAR based (with some minimal difference), the country has a strong aviation infrastructure, it is regionally close to airlines that are expanding quickly and successfully, and it has an educated population that makes great candidates for pilot jobs when trained. Oh, and the cost of aviation fuel (especially when using Jet-A powered aircraft – such as the Diamond DA40 and DA42 diesel powered aircraft) allows one of the major costs of training to be significantly reduced. While training programs in Saudi Arabia are not as widespread as in the United States currently, they are expanding, improving, and seeking agreements to place their trainees with Middle Eastern (and other) based airlines. If you were an airline seeking to build relationships with training providers, would you do it halfway across the world or with one that is based in your home region or even country? How about if it could be done at a lower cost locally?

Development of training capacity in locations outside the United States is going to allow airlines and countries seeking to send candidates tfor training to shop. Much like other industries have seen services move offshore to countries that can provide services at a lower cost with the same quality, aviation training is now seeing the first stages of the development of infrastructure overseas that will compete dollar for dollar with U.S. service providers.

Countries and airlines that sponsor training for their candidates are also getting into the training discussion. It is logical to think that an airline considering the purchase of aircraft from companies such as Boeing or Airbus would consider how they were going to have enough pilots to fly the aircraft they would order. They are putting pressure on the manufacturers of the equipment they use to help find solutions. As this development discussion continues, we see examples of large aircraft manufacturers working to help ensure that the available pool of pilots is sufficient that airlines can keep ordering aircraft without worrying about staffing shortages. An example of this is the recent press release from Boeing, “Boeing to Expand Aviation Training in Russia” (http://boeing.mediaroom.com/2013-12-16-Boeing-to-Expand-Aviation-Training-in-Russia).

Some places have much further to go in the development of the infrastructure that will allow effective training and some places may never be good places to build high capacity training programs. In places where political systems make approval of flight for training or general aviation flights, the development process will be slower than more open locations. China is by all accounts an example of this currently, although there is significant interest in how this will change in upcoming years. For this reason, much training for Chinese students is still conducted in the U.S. but training providers are beginning to develop infrastructure that may bring this back home as airspace becomes more open in China. Countries that are physically too small to allow cross-country flying to meet training requirements without crossing international borders are unlikely to ever really be the best fit. But others that are large and that have open airspace, may be places we see training boom. As these places boom, quantity of training is likely to decrease in the U.S.

Arrogance that “we do it best” here in the United States isn’t going to be enough to keep pilot training here. Other parts of the world have learned from us, learned from our mistakes, and are taking advantage of highly experienced companies and consultants with experience in the United States and European aviation industries to develop high quality aviation infrastructure in their own regions and countries.

Perhaps it is time our aviation training community got together and became a little more strategic and plan for how our industry will best fit into (and survive in) the world aviation training market long-term. Because in the end, we are providing education and skills based training, and the provision of this is something for which the market is competitive. As other countries develop their capacity to train pilots, this market is going to become more competitive.


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