Business | FOCUS

Pandemic hampers pilot training as aviator shortage looms in graying Japan

Kyodo

The coronavirus pandemic has hampered pilot training programs overseas, and Japan’s aviation industry is bracing for a shortage of commercial aviators in the near future.

Airlines and universities often dispatch trainees to facilities abroad, but the countries hosting them have stopped issuing visas to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, bringing training programs to a halt.

As the large number of pilots recruited during the bubble economy from the late 1980s to early 1990s will start retiring around 2030, the government, airlines and universities have been trying to increase training to counter a pilot shortage that could hamper flight services.

About 50 trainees of All Nippon Airways Co. have been affected by the March 16 closure of flight schools in Germany and the United States run by the Lufthansa Group, ANA officials said.

Low-cost carrier Peach Aviation Ltd., a unit of ANA Holdings Inc., also saw training programs for five trainees in New Zealand canceled from mid-March. Though seven new trainees are scheduled to undergo training from August, it is unclear whether New Zealand will issue visas for them in time, according to the airline.

In the meantime, Japan Airlines Co. is continuing training for 72 pilot candidates in the U.S. but could face a problem when sending its next batch because Washington has suspended visa issuance.

Around 10 trainees at Skymark Airlines Inc. in Australia did not experience any major disruption, but the company has experienced difficulties related to visa issuance for other trainees expected to go there.

There are two main ways to become a commercial pilot in Japan. An individual can either join an airline and undergo training, or secure a license after completing courses offered at the government-linked Civil Aviation College in Miyazaki Prefecture or at private universities.

Tokai University had 56 students return from the U.S. after training there was suspended. It also postponed the departure in April of 29 students to the United States.

Flight students of Sojo University in Kumamoto Prefecture also returned from the U.S. in March, a month earlier than scheduled.

Although ANA and JAL have stopped hiring this year due to the pandemic, the giants are continuing to recruit pilots.

It takes from 3½ to five years for an airline trainee to become a co-pilot.

“Pilots are core elements of the aviation industry and we have to train them regardless of short-term business fluctuations,” an ANA official said.

“The number of pilots cannot be increased immediately. A long-term plan is necessary and we are keeping a close watch on the situation,” said a senior official of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry.

With many countries easing measures to contain the coronavirus as infections wane, the senior official said, “The training will gradually restart but the long-term plan to increase pilots will be affected by flight demand. We have to carefully decide whether or not to slow it down.”

For airlines around the world, however, it is becoming difficult to make long-term plans. The pandemic is posing a serious challenge in particular low-cost carriers, whose business models rely on high seat occupancy and aircraft operating rates.

As they try to restart more flights, some are using their aircraft to transport cargo and others are trying to balance infection prevention with profitability until social distancing rules can be safely relaxed and travel demand returns to normal.

But some aviation industry experts say that LCCs will likely need to start devising new strategies instead of just weathering the storm by hoping demand will eventually return to normal.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner