Thursday, March 30, 2006

Mayday! Mayday! for the aviation industry

The local aviation industry could crash if the exodus of aviation experts does not slow down. The industry is composed of two sectors: the airlines and the service providers.

``Poaching at the highest level’’ was how a Filipino airline executive called the aggressive recruitment by foreign airlines. These ``poachers’’ have been reportedly coming to make choice pickings from the Philippines’ pool of highly trained experts. They could offer higher pay because they had not spent money and time to train their own.

More than 100 hundred Filipino pilots to go. This was what the Indian air industry was reportedly in search of during its recent recruitment foray in the Philippines. That’s too many considering that the Philippines’ has about only 700 commercial pilots to go around.

Singapore reportedly has an active order for 50 pilots pending at the Philippine Overseas and Employment Association.

From 2004 to 2005, more than 200 aircraft mechanics and aviation support staff have left the country according to Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) figures. Philippine Airlines (PAL) has lost 75 pilots in the last three years to different airlines in the Middle East and Asia.

``We could lose more and we are feeling the pinch,’’ said PAL vice president for human resources Cesar Lamberte. ``India will be needing 3,500 pilots in the next four to five years.’’ The projected number is about 10,000 pilots for China in the next 20 years.

The good news is that Filipino airplane pilots, mechanics, engineers, technicians, airline crew, etc. are so good that they are in such great demand abroad. The bad news is that they are being snapped up by foreign recruiters faster than the local aviation industry could produce trained ones and replenish their pool.

The foreign air industries’ gain is certainly the Philippine’s loss. The dollar remittances that are supposed to result from this phenomenon would not be enough to repair the damage to the Philippine industry that serves both local and foreign airline needs.

Key players in the aviation industry have written Labor Secretary Patricia Santo Tomas to stress that ``(i)f the current exodus of these highly skilled mission critical staff continues, the impact on the operations of the local aviation industry as well as the subsequent loss of the sector’s contribution to the national economy would be severe and irreparable.’’

``It takes about P14 million to produce a full-fledged pilot,’’ Lamberte told the Inquirer. PAL has 419 pilots and runs an aviation training school.

Lamberte explained why foreign airlines could offer Filipino recruits higher pay. ``First, they don’t have to spend for training. Second, they don’t have to wait seven to 10 years to produce a pilot. You need so many flying hours to become a captain or co-captain.’’

In other words, the making of an airline captain cannot be fast-tracked. Flying is a highly regulated profession. A pilot should fly only up to 1,000 hours a year.

Lufthansa Technik Philippines consultant Enzo Ziga said that aircraft mechanics would also be in demand. It takes five to six years and P3 million to train an aircraft mechanic A.``There are about 1,700 aircraft mechanics in the industry and this number is not enough,’’ Ziga added.

The Philippine State College of Aeronautics, supposedly the country’s training ground for aviation needs upgrading. It is the private aviation industry that has so far been carrying the costly burden of training.

According to air industry statistics, the industry provides employment for about 27,000 Filipinos. It serves 31 international and 21 domestic destinations and another 200 routes for non-scheduled carriers. It flies 22,500 passengers and around 500 tons of cargo everyday.

Among the key players that have made the Philippines the regional hub for maintenance and repair are Lufthansa Technik Phils., Aviation Plus and Miascor. At least 15,000 are employed in this sector.

With global passenger traffic increasing at five percent yearly until 2023, the projected number of new aircraft would be 16,601 worldwide.

Singapore is in need of 767 airline mechanics and 50 junior mechanics. Saudi Arabia needs 73. These are active job orders with the POEA. Also being hired are painters, planners, ticketers and airport representatives. Cabin crew hiring is also increasing. A Middle East airline is said to be hiring 1,000 per year and the target is 12,000 by 2012.

Here at home, the air transport industry will be requiring more planes for the local carriers in the next five years.

Although there is a glut in pilots in the US, Lamberte said the airlines of the Middle East are not likely to look in that direction. Filipinos are a top choice. When proficiency in English becomes an enforced prerequisite in 2008, there will be an increased demand for Filipinos.

So what does the industry propose? That the government ``consider a ban on the overseas deployment of the said occupations and skills in pursuit of the national interest for a period of three to five years, effective immediately.’’

The ban will give the domestic aviation industry ``a breathing space that should allow current interventions…such as aggressive manpower training programs to provide a buffer when the time to lift the deployment ban comes.’’

At present, the industry players said, ``the exodus far outpaces whatever efforts are taken by the industry both in training replacements since there is a long lead time involved.’’

Last January, Rep. Roseller Barinaga filed a resolution asking both the executive and legislative departments to support the proposed temporary ban.

Mayday! Mayday!