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Old 23rd Nov 2008, 17:28
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Join Date: Nov 1999
Posts: 2,303
Yes your observations are correct. What has changed is the cost base of some of the larger carriers. The market model that has evolved over the last 20 years is that of the so called Lo-Co airlines. Selling an airline seat for the cost of a pair of cheap jeans involved an entirely different set of yield strategies from those of the traditional carriers, together with a radical paring of the input cost base, wherever possible.

In so much as Pilots were concerned, this was and to a large extent still is a major input cost for the airlines. The simple answer was to simply cut wages. the problem with that was, that in a competive growing marketplace your labour would simply move elsewhere. The manufacturers of aircraft had already started to respond to a wider customer demand to reduce costs by designing the Flight Engineer out of the equation. As far as some of the airlines were concerned, if they could simply unbolt the Co-Pilots seat from the floor and throw it away to save costs, many of them would have done it in a heartbeat. Of course this was a regulatory non-starter, so other cost savings had to be looked at.

There were no end of people clamouring for the job, so potentially the laws of supply and demand provided an obvious opportunity to provide a cheap and ready supply of warm bodies to occupy that role. As you have pointed out, traditionally First Officers would have been sourced from the air force, turbo-prop operators, air taxis, instructors and other career change or career advancement sources. The problem was that these people demanded terms and renumeration that reflected their skill and experience level and their relative scarcity. However it was soon realised that there was a loophole to be exploited. Approved training establishments had for many years been providing candidates to a limited number of specific airlines. There was no particular reason why this couldn't be expanded to provide low hour pilots to fill those seats at low cost. Better still you could make the candidates for these positions pay for that training and assume all the risk themselves. Once trained you could then make them pay for their own additional requirements including type ratings, line training, even their own uniform in some cases. On top of this you could slash the salaries and Terms and conditions simply because so many candidates would be tripping over each other to apply for these vacancies. They had to, as they now had big debts they needed to service. The only cloud was that the insurers or regulators would stick their oar in and spoil the plan. However they didn't. The regulators were satisfied as long as an experienced Pilot was in the left seat, and the insurers didn't care as long as claims didn't start to rise.

With this growth in the "vanity publishing" aspect of pilot training, the training industry itself, modified to adapt. Indeed it had to in order to survive. Establishments started up to provide a complete package to the airlines at minimal cost/ minimal risk to those businesses. The costs and risk fell onto the applicant themselves. All of this worked well during a very prolonged growth cycle. Even the terrorist atrocities at the start of the century only caused a temporary disturbance to this unchecked growth. Fuelled by the provision of "easy credit" and the "feel good factor" of rapid asset growth and general wage rises, the cost base of these airlines fell and the industry expanded rapidly.

That is the major change over the last 20 years. Those of us who have been in the industry for longer than 20 years have seen it start, grow, and now it is beginning to snap at our heels.

This is why some people seem to believe they have an instant expectation of a "Jet job", because that is what the industry has led them to believe. Coupled with the "pop idol", "X-Factor", "I want it now", "Borrow the cash and take what you want" mentality, that pervades large sections of society, there are no shortage of willing and eager candidates. As with all bubbles of this nature, eventually they burst and reality takes a cold hard grip.

Whether the market reverts, resumes or changes and evolves again remains to be seen. I am not going to predict what might happen, but am simply stating in part was has happened. Once again your observations are correct, but the reason for the changed expectations is largely a result of what has happened in those intervening years.
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