russia_airlines.jpgThe prospective global shortage in qualified airline pilots continues to remain a topical issue in terms of airlines’ strategic planning. Indeed, recent reports indicate the concern may bring winds of change to Russia’s prolonged ban on foreign pilot recruitment. Last week Russia’s Transport Minister, Maxim Sokolov, suggested that the country’s civil aviation industry currently faces a deficit of some 1,000 qualified pilots. His endorsement to scrap the prohibition on foreign pilots by 2013 may see an easing of the market gap if approved, but what implications does this pose for industrial relations and flight safety in the country?

Russia’s current pilot shortage is illustrated in its market dynamics. Whereas there were 67,000 pilots for 20 million passengers fifteen years ago, now there are only 12,000 pilots to carry an increased passenger base of 64 million. Moreover, the 650 graduates accorded to Russia’s state run training system over a course of 3-5 years generate a considerable shortfall in supply. To place it in perspective, the domestic industry alone requires around 800 new recruits every year. Satisfying this demand has obliged regulatory authorities to extend the maximum annual flying hours of already overworked pilots.

The proposed amendments to Article 56 of the Air Code will no doubt open up Russia’s aviation job market, with Russian-speaking CIS passport holders given precedence over other foreign pilots. However, this hasn’t failed to raise contention between local pilots over changes to job benefits and salaries. For instance, Aeroflot reportedly boosted salaries upwards of €5,000 as the efforts to secure qualified pilots sparked a year-on-year increase of 35 percent. Aeroflot pilots are also entitled to 70-days of annual paid leave, compared to the 20-30 days standard for EU companies. According to CEO, Skaiste Knyzaite, ‘Attracting foreign pilots will not necessarily lead to a drop in salaries, as the Russian market deficit is simply too large. In fact, it can only ensure improved growth in the volume of air traffic each year.’

Regardless of the growth potential, Russia still retains the world’s worst air safety record. Last year the country registered more air accident deaths than any other country – a substantial 13 times higher than the global average. Indeed, the cause of many of these accidents was attributed to human factors. Recent investigations have discovered a raft of violations in safety protocol, forged documents, poor training and ineffective regulation throughout most of the nation’s 90 or so airlines. In particular, the relatively substandard regulations that cover domestic-only carriers have seen the occurrence of widespread document falsification, the use of counterfeit spare parts and outright negligence in air safety. Although the circumstances themselves may act as a deterrent to expat job-seekers, foreign competition is likely to instil improved standards of safety in Russian airlines owing to a higher degree of qualified personnel and less strain on currently overworked and overtired pilots.

‘The prohibition of foreign pilots in Russia is a layover from times of a closed economy and concerns over the strategic importance of the air industry. Since that time, many ex-soviet states have abolished such restrictions albeit without developing their own flight training schools. In cases where local units are unable to supply the essential number of qualified pilots, many flight crew leasing agencies operate without confinement to national or regional borders to deliver high calibre pilots without costly delay. Such agencies are able to develop tailored personnel solutions that ensure long-term growth sustainability, like in the case of Air Astana. Indeed, the airline has driven much success through its policy of outsourcing aspects of training, operation and personnel,’ asserts the CEO, Skaiste Knyzaite.

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