Sharp increases around the world in air transportation have led to an acute shortage of pilots. The International Civil Aviation Organization warns that the ranks of pilots and other airline workers are dwindling even as the number of commercial flights and passengers are expected to double in the coming 15 years. More than 600,000 pilots will be needed by 2036 to fly commercial airliners, but 80 percent of them have yet to be trained, according to the ICAO. Demand for pilots will be particularly strong in the Asia-Pacific region, where competition to secure the needed manpower is already heating up.

The shortage could threaten Japan’s plans to boost inbound tourism as a key growth industry; the government has taken aim at increasing the number of incoming tourists to 40 million in 2020 and 60 million in 2030. Since training a pilot to fly a passenger jet takes time, concerted medium to long-term efforts by the government and private sector will be needed to secure enough skilled aviation professionals.

One of the key factors in the rapid tourism growth has been the sharp increase in flights to Japan operated by low-cost carriers, which plan to add even more flights in anticipation of further rises in the number of inbound travelers. A pilot shortage could derail such plans.

According to a forecast by a subcommittee of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, Japan will need to have a supply of about 400 new pilots each year by around 2030 to meet the projected demand. However, the current sources of supply — such as the government-run Civil Aviation College, private universities that have pilot training courses, pilot training by major airline companies, as well as former Self-Defense Forces personnel trained as pilots — combined have the capacity to produce roughly 300 pilots a year.

Compounding the problem is the prospect that pilots who were hired in large numbers by Japan’s airlines during the late 1980s bubble boom — a generation who account for a big proportion of pilots in the industry — will be reaching retirement age around 2030.

A shortage of pilots is already affecting the operation of some airlines. Air Do, a Sapporo-based regional carrier, had to cancel 34 flights last November after the resignation of two pilots left the airline unable to work out flight schedules. It then had to suspend 26 flights in February and in late March was forced into reducing flights on its main routes and terminating one route.

Air Do says it plans to fill the shortage by beefing up training of co-pilots to serve as captains and hiring more pilots. But the episode showed that pilot shortages are becoming a serious management problem for medium-size airlines and low-cost carriers that do not have the capacity to train pilots for themselves.

Last month, Peach Aviation, an LCC under the wing of All Nippon Airways, said it plans to launch a full-scale program of its own to train pilots to cope with the anticipated shortage. The airline in 2014 had to cancel up to about 20 percent of its flights in the summer and fall seasons when illnesses and resignations by several pilots left the company without enough captains to handle all of its scheduled flights.

Pilot shortages are not unique to Japanese airliners. Chinese airlines are reportedly trying to recruit more pilots by offering lucrative wages, but that wouldn’t suit the business strategy of LLCs, which try to minimize operational expenses as much as possible.

Steady long-term efforts by all parties involved will hold the key to coping with the problem, because it takes years to train skilled aviation professionals. The Civil Aviation College is expanding its enrollment capacity this year. The transport ministry has launched an interest-free loan program for students taking flight training courses at universities, with the ANA group and Japan Airlines covering part of the cost. The government has already raised the age limit on pilots from 64 to 67, and a growing number of those in their 60s are continuing to fly after being rehired by major airliners beyond retirement age or getting new jobs with LCCs. These efforts need to be kept up and expanded before the problem of pilot shortage gets too serious.

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