The arrival of another Embraer E190 jet at Kenya Airways’ base in Embakasi earlier this week, the prospect of two more such aircraft coming shortly to join the fleet and the apparent review of terms and conditions by the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority has put yet more pressure on the already stretched ‘market’ for cockpit crews.
Airlines contacted in the region are reportedly ‘ring fencing’ their pilots for fear of losing them to ‘higher bidders’ but are offering little insight of their own efforts to train younger pilots, either from scratch or by offering them ‘upgrades’ from their commercial pilot licenses to the ATPL level, i.e. moving them from flying single and twin engined light aircraft to turboprops and jets.
Kenya Airways is, besides Ethiopian Airlines, the only known airline in the Eastern African region with a dedicated pilot training program, which is being carried out in various aviation institutes and supported by their introduction of simulators at their Embakasi base.
Salaries and benefit packages for qualified pilots have already peaked in recent years and are set to go up further, according to a well placed source in Nairobi.
‘If Kenya Airways, that currently employs almost 400 pilots, is to double its fleet over the next few years , they might need to increase the number of pilots accordingly. Precision Air, their partner in Tanzania, is also growing fast and they too have followed KQ’s example. But some of the other airlines in the region, the new ones in South Sudan, in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are worried. You cannot bring more aircraft if you do not have the crews to fly them. In order to become a First Officer, or a Captain, pilot needs a certain number of hours flown on that particular type of aircraft. This varies from airline to airline but not by very much because such qualifications are mandatory under regulatory supervision. The deal that Kenya Airways have recently struck with Embraer, to assist them in regard of pilot training, may go further in fact than just training. Embraer might supply them with Brazilian pilots as expatriates.
RwandAir is getting new aircraft and has recently announced they’re also planning on more than doubling their fleet in coming years. They are also using expatriate pilots while gradually bringing up Rwandans to gain experience on their smaller aircraft and smaller jets, but generally recruitment is becoming more difficult, retaining crews is becoming more difficult. The biggest threat is the fast growing airlines in the Gulf. Some airline executives have played this down but it is a known fact. They recruit cabin crews, technicians, qualified handling staff and in particular pilots. Regulators therefore find it even harder to get pilots for open positions because public sector pay is poor, compared to airlines, and when the CAA’s do not have enough qualified inspectors, they find it hard to carry out supervision which is mandated through ICAO. Our governments have been told about this for many years, but even the East African Aviation Academy in Soroti (Uganda) is underequipped. Instead of investing in such facilities government ignorse them for too long and then rushes to put out fires. Training aircraft technicians and pilots takes years, there is no quick substitute for experience. Private aviation schools are expensive and unless a young man or woman has a sponsor, they often fail to raise the funds to attend them. And training abroad, like in America, is too expensive and too difficult because we Africans are all potential terrorists for them since 9/11.’ These were the sentiments of a senior figure in the aviation private sector in Kenya when asked to comment on this issue, painting a cloudy forecast for the finance chiefs of airlines in the region, who need to brace themselves for higher wages to recruit and retain their cockpit crews, while having to save money elsewhere or raise fares.