Has Top Gun “Maverick” lost his appeal? Decline in pilot training enrolments amid Covid-19 pandemic

The pandemic has turned a global pilot shortage into a surplus. A forecast made by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects the number of flight passengers to return to normal in 2023.1 This may signal bad news for those wishing to pursue a pilot training course in the near future.
The domino effect of massive layoffs of pilots by airline companies is the decrease in pilot training applications in Malaysia. One of the many Flying Training Organisations in Malaysia, saw a fall in enrolment of 30% at its Eastern Malaysia centre and a 15% decrease in its Western Malaysia centre.2
The reason for this is because the investment does not necessarily guarantee its returns. While pilot training is relatively a short course, it can be expensive and depending on the type of licence obtained, it could amount to somewhere around RM 370,000 (approximately USD 89,000).3 Upon enrolment to a flying school, student pilots are required to obtain a Student Pilot’s Licence  from the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM) which entitles the holder to fly as pilot of an aircraft for the purpose of becoming qualified for the grant of a pilot's licence at a prescribed fee.4 They can choose to obtain, among others, a Private Pilot Licence, Commercial Pilot Licence or Airline Transport Pilot Licence with a prescribed maximum period of validity as issued by  the CAAM.5
The new norm
It was recently announced that the training base of the Police Air Wing Unit has been recognised as a full-fledged flying academy, making it the first government agency air training base in the country (Malaysia’s very own quintessential TOPGUN academy).6 The centre had received the Approved Training Organisation — Flight Training Organisation (ATP-FTO) and Approved Training Organisation — Type Rating Training Organisation (ATP-TRTO) certificates from the CAAM.7 While this means that the government will not be required to send its trainees to other private institutions for training which, in turn, reduces its expenses, this would also mean that other local flying academies may expect a further decrease in enrolments.
Therefore, flying schools have to adapt to the changing times to ensure its survival in the industry and to remain attractive to potential applicants. With the need for social distancing measures and also continuous training, a cadet airline programme has introduced virtual training modules for regulatory and non-regulatory modules, which were approved by the CAAM. The academy has also introduced home web-based learning for recurring training of flight crews to keep them updated with recent developments and to overcome operational challenges in such trying times.8
Perhaps the silver lining in all this is that airline companies practice “succession planning” which require them to replace pilots that will be reaching their retirement age. This affords an opportunity for fresh graduates or potential graduates to be employed eventually, though it remains to be seen how fast they can be absorbed into the industry. The chairman of a flying academy has advised that those looking to secure a job should look into air freight companies whose business have soared with the recent heavy reliance on online shopping.9
Planning for the future, starting now
In 2018, it was estimated that the Southeast Asia (SEA) region will require between 6,000 and 9,000 pilots in three years’ time10. According to the 2019 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook report, it was also further predicted that the Asia Pacific region will lead the worldwide growth in demand for pilots with 266,000 new pilots over the next 20 years.11 There is a possibility that, post pandemic, the global demand for air travel may not return to normal considering changing perceptions on the necessity of air travel such as business travels, but that remains to be seen.Unlike the United States and Europe where the aviation markets are mature, Malaysia is still an emerging market.
Therefore, while there may be a surplus of pilots at the moment, industry players have to ensure that there will be a healthy supply of experienced pilots when the economy recovers from the pandemic to meet the global demand. Aviation regulators and relevant parties can work in synergy to create opportunities for graduate pilots to build flying hours so as to fulfil stringent requirements of airline companies when they begin recruiting again. The industry that has once contributed USD 10.3 billion to Malaysia’s GDP12 is now faced with a reckoning and hence, the need to revamp and restructure, to right the wrongs of the past and ensure the industry remains viable even in tough times.
The harsh reality is that prospects of a stable and secured career for pilots remain bleak in the near future. However, soaring into the bright blue sky and the opportunity to travel have their own unique appeal which should triumph over the shortcomings of the pandemic. Hopefully, aspiring pilots out there still “feel the need…the need for speed”.
If you have any queries, please contact our associate, Sandhya Saravanan at sandhya@skrine.com.

4 See Regulation 59 of the Civil Aviation Regulations 2016
5 ibid
7 Regulation 64 of the Civil Aviation Regulations 2016