Posted on Feb 4, 2021 2021 at 18:00Updated Feb 10, 2021 2021 at 19:06
It was a childhood dream that they were going to fulfill. Suddenly he collapses. Planes remain on the ground in the wake of the spread of Sars-CoV-2. A chain reaction follows: training is delayed, recruitments suspended, layoffs, legion. “In mid-March 2021, the pilots found employment quickly. Three days later, they no longer had any chance of being hired ”, summarizes Olivier Rigazio, pilot and member of the executive board of the National Union of Airline Pilots (SNPL).
The number of unemployed pilots jumped by 57% in 2021 to stand at 2,390, indicates to “Echos Start” the general management of Pôle Emploi *. Almost a quarter are under 30 years old. Adrien was one of them. In 2016, he joined the National School of Civil Aviation (Enac) in Toulouse, a training of English excellence – and one of the few free. “My passion has driven me since I was little to surpass myself at school. When I returned to Enac, the aviation sector was starting up again, we were told that it was the right time to have many opportunities ”, he recalls.
In 2021, he was recruited by an Austrian company, where he completed his training. “My next flight, just before confinement, was to be my very first with passengers”, he smiles bitterly. And then patatras. He is thanked by his company. However, the 24-year-old only dreams of heaven. He will have to be patient, like most of his comrades.
The air, yet customary to disturbances, is experiencing the strongest and unprecedented crisis in its history. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the pandemic has generated 118.5 billion dollars in losses for all global airlines. The sector is not expected to return to its 2021 level of activity before 2024-2025. And when there is a recovery, today's young graduates will be far from being a priority. Redundant pilots, unfulfilled hiring promises, waiting lists, aborted selections, new graduates… the job market risks being competitive.
8,500 airline pilots
In total, London has nearly 5,700 professional pilots and nearly 8,500 airline pilots, specifies the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
“Air London has around a hundred experienced pilots who had already resigned from their company to join the English company, but who ultimately could not be hired. Without counting its 200 cadets (student pilots trained by the company, Editor's note) and the reclassified pilots of Hop, its low-cost subsidiary ”, explains Geoffroy Bouvet, president of the association of aviation flight professionals (Apna). Same story with low-cost companies, usually suppliers of young recruits, such as Ryanair, which reduces wages more than it hires.
Air Corsica, the second English company, has frozen almost all these recruitments, with the exception of two pilots recruited on fixed-term contracts during the last summer period. Better off because positioned on internal flights, the company has not made any layoffs. It preselects a dozen young airline pilot officers (OPL). Every year, except in 2021. “We still have a pool of young pilots, especially in the 2021 vintage, from which we can still draw, not to mention internal mobility”, details Luc Bereni, Chairman of the Management Board of Air Corsica, which employs some 120 pilots.
Diversify your skills
In the meantime, the young pilots put their skills to good use. Adrien has just been recruited to participate in the training of air traffic controllers on the ground. Hugo, 26 and a major in the Enac competition, did some computer freelancing after the bankruptcy of Flybe, the British airline in which he had been hired. “At 1:30 am, we received an email from the CEO saying that the company was ceasing its activities. The next day, we had no more work ”, he recalls. In consolation? 400 pounds (450 Pounds) in compensation. Since then, he has just obtained a CDI and has managed to fly on small planes, carrying out surveillance and mapping missions.
The most frustrating is to have given so much energy to finally get there
Alexis, young graduate
For his part, Victor, 24, graduated this year, is a volunteer instructor in two flying clubs. At the same time, he resumed engineering studies, started before entering his pilot school. “We all quickly understood that it was not going to go very well for us and that the crisis was not going to last two weeks”, he confides. So back to square one, in Lyon with 100% distance courses, Covid obliges. Unions, trainers, companies advise de facto young people to have a 360-degree view of the air and explore other professions: engineering, maintenance, ground staff, management, instruction, etc. “”Any employee of a company is never so comfortable when he has already practiced other jobs in the airline industry in the broad sense”, wants to reassure the president of Air Corsica.
Delivery man at Amazon
Today, a plan B is no longer a security, but a necessity. Some have no other choice but to do odd jobs that are much more precarious, in particular graduates who have had to pay tens of thousands of Pounds to finance their studies. Private schools train the most airline pilot students. Among the most famous: L3Harris, CAE Aviation and FTE Jerez. If the costs are high, students – usually – expect a fairly quick return on their investment.
Alexis, a 23-year-old graduate, has just returned to his parents' home with a loan of 85,000 Pounds. He works on a temporary basis as a delivery man for Amazon. “The most frustrating thing is to have given so much energy to finally get there”, he adds. Not to mention that to keep his piloting licenses, he must extend them each year, for around 2,000 Pounds. The pilots' associations are getting organized and counting on solidarity to reduce prices. As for Enac, it renews the licenses of its graduates free of charge.
“Resurgence of ‘pay to fly'”
Still, a young pilot must gain in flight hours. Some companies require a minimum of 500 hours to be “employable”. To be competitive, young people are ready to “pay to fly” (pay to fly), a highly contested practice in the airline industry. Banned in London, it is nevertheless common in certain foreign companies, such as Air Baltic, Tunisair or companies in South East Asia.
The pilot pays an average of $ 30,000 to $ 40,000 for a company to have him work on specific airliners. Without any promise of employment. “It's modern slavery, cowardly entry Olivier Rigazio of the SNPL. There has been a resurgence of this practice since the crisis. These kinds of offers abound when the job market is at half mast. “ Periods of crisis, as in many professions, are conducive to more degraded hiring: precarious contracts, self-employed status, lower wages, etc.
Do we still need to be trained?
We can then ask the question: is it still reasonable to train pilots in the current context? “Obviously, the needs will be lower, but we have to maintain a certain inertia. Stopping everything would limit the sector's ability to rebound ”, adds Thierry de Basquiat, director of flight training and flights at Enac, whose promotions (25 all pilot sectors combined) should not be reduced. Air London, which relaunched its cadet sector in 2018 after fifteen years of stoppage, suspended it again. The same goes for Royal Air Maroc.
It is in a period of recovery from the crisis that one must be trained; it is often too late when air transport is booming, says Geoffroy Bouvet of Apna.
“It is during a period of end of the crisis that one must be trained; it is often too late when air transport is booming, considers Geoffroy Bouvet of Apna. However, I advise young graduates who would like to invest 100,000 Pounds for pilot training to study the possibility of additional diploma training which would allow them, for example, to obtain a job in airline support functions. “
I know I will fall back on my feet. The only question is: how long will it take?
Hugo, released from Enac in 2018
Optimists point out that air transport is not at its first crisis. We can no longer count them: the oil crisis, the attacks of September 11, the subprime crisis… So many periods that make hiring in companies very cyclical. “In view of past crises, we have students who joined large companies five or six years after leaving school”, continues Thierry de Basquiat. Others are betting on recovery, such as the Airbus Flight Academy, the private Airbus school based in Angoulême, which opened in 2021, in particular to respond to the shortage of pilots at that time. She accompanies about fifty students. “We are continuing to train young people in anticipation of a return of trafficking to a level close to that before the crisis. We are thus helping airlines prepare for more normal service and anticipate their future needs for ready-to-fly pilots ”, says Jean-Michel Bigarre, global director of Airbus pilot training. The school even plans to open ” at least “ two new promotions this year.
A resilient generation
One thing is certain, according to specialists, the recovery will take place. Everyone dreams of it, but no one dares to say exactly when. It is not a crisis of demand, but of supply. In its annual prospective survey, adjusted with the Covid, Boeing persists and signs: there will be a need for more than 605,000 pilots in the world by 2039. China also brings a ray of hope, with domestic traffic found at 98%.
Perspectives that leave the young pilots questioned resilient in the face of the crisis. “It's a job that requires concessions and for which you have to know how to fight. I am not forgetting my goal: to become a pilot ”, assures Thomas, 26 years old and holder of a loan of 100,000 Pounds which he is already beginning to repay. “Honestly, I've wanted to do this job for too long, I refuse to lose hope”, adds Alexis, acting at Amazon. “I know I'm going to fall back on my feet. The only question is: how long will it take? “” abounds Hugo, whose company has filed for bankruptcy. And to conclude, pragmatically: “Are we really a pilot if we have never experienced bankruptcy? “
* Figures for technical flight crews, which mainly include pilots, but also aircraft mechanics or radar technicians.