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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shortage of Airline Pilots Sets Off Alarm Bells

MTStudents at the Sasovo flight school follow a strict regimen and wear uniforms while they study to become pilots.
SASOVO, Ryazan Region -- With its neat rows of houses surrounded by lush greenery, the state-run Sasovo flight school is a bucolic place, graduating up to 300 pilots a year in Soviet times. Today, students occupy only two out of the six dormitory buildings, and the graduating class this spring will total about 40.

A growing shortage of pilots, one of the industry's most pressing problems before the economic crisis, has been masked partially by falling passenger numbers. But aviation experts expect it to re=-emerge in full force.

The average age of a Russian pilot is 50, and 900 pilots are forced to quit every year after failing to pass strict medical tests, according to Federal Aviation Agency statistics. The government has launched a program that aims to churn out 1,000 new pilots nationwide every year, but even that measure will not fill the gap overnight.

Meanwhile, the fallout of last year's high jet fuel prices and the collapse of the AiRUnion coalition of airlines are still ricocheting through the industry, exasperating the situation both for pilots and those who hire them.

"If a house has not been renovated in 15 years, a restart of financing can only be used for repairs," said Sasovo director Yevgeny Smolnikov, sitting in his spacious office decorated with rural Russian landscapes and a portrait of President Dmitry Medvedev above his desk.

"Government support has been increasing for the past three years, but the assistance should have come 10 years ago," he said. "We are still lagging behind."

In the blackest period of the flight school's history, the 1990s, graduates could not receive their pilot's license for years. To become pilots, students had to accumulate 60 flight hours, but the school did not have enough fuel to fly its planes. Former students recall taking apart old aircraft to sell as scrap metal in order to pay for fuel and get enough flight hours to graduate.

One such student, Alexei, eventually gave up and dropped out. Now 31 and still wanting to fly, he is getting a commercial pilot license through expensive private lessons. He is too old to apply to state flight schools.

"In a state school, you are completely dependent on whether the government chooses to pay for fuel and have no way to predict or influence the process," he said in an e-mail when contacted though a pilots forum. "I chose the more expensive but more reliable way."

High-Flying Plans

Those days are behind Sasovo, Smolnikov said, and all pilots who have graduated over the past four years had the necessary 60 flight hours. The school is also receiving 19 new planes this year, as well as flight simulators, and the airfield is to be renovated in 2010.

Maria Antonova / MT
Sasovo doesn't have enough flight instructors, whose monthly pay of 10,000 rubles is a tenth of what pilots make.

It is also increasing admissions to meet government targets. Still, because the school had to catch up on flight training for past graduates, it has not been able to admit many new students.

The government's target of 1,000 new pilots a year will only be reached in about five years, provided that state financing remains stable, Smolnikov said, adding that about 70 percent of applicants don't even pass the medical check -- an indication that Russia's youth today is not as healthy as their Soviet peers were.

There are six state schools in Russia that train pilots for civil aviation. Two of them have the status of university-level institutions, and four, including Sasovo, are academies.

The government has promised 34.3 billion rubles (about $1 billion) to flight schools through 2015, and the bulk of the money has been earmarked for new planes, airfields and flight simulators.

Flight instructors, however, seem to have gotten the short end of the stick. Some 30 percent to 40 percent of flight school instructors are over 60, and there is a severe shortage of candidates to fill their positions when they retire, Federal Aviation Agency chief Gennady Kurzenkov said at an industry meeting in December.

Sasovo has only 66 percent of the flight instructors it needs, said director Smolnikov.

Sasovo instructors say the reason for this is simple -- commercial pilots earn 10 times more than instructors. But experienced pilots like Fyodor Lyashchenko said they are not leaving the school because they enjoy its tight-knit community and the opportunity to teach.

"Flight instructors get paid about 10,000 rubles" a month, he said. "Every year there are fewer and fewer of us because of so-called natural selection: age and health."

The situation is even worse with plane mechanics, whose starting salary is only 3,500 rubles. So even though the government is ready to allocate 18 million rubles to buy each new Yak trainer plane, soon there may not be anyone to look after them. Sasovo mechanics currently have to maintain two or three planes simultaneously, a nearly impossible feat now that the school's flight season has started in earnest after the snowy winter months.

Dissatisfied Pilots

Commercial pilots who have jobs with major Russian airlines are also not entirely satisfied with their working conditions. Salaries have increased by 150 percent on average since 2006, so pilots are no longer leaving Russia in droves to work for foreign airlines, said Miroslav Boichuk, head of the Cockpit Personnel Association of Russia, the pilots' trade union. But the pilot shortage is pushing airlines to extend working hours and lobby for a change in legislation that sets working conditions.

Maria Antonova / MT
An-2 biplanes standing in neat rows at the Sasovo flight school in the Ryazan region. The trainer planes, used in most Russian aviation schools, are being phased out over the next two years.

Boichuk estimated that there are 18,000 to 20,000 commercial pilots working in Russia right now.

Problems in the industry started a year ago when fuel prices began growing rapidly. Some industry players, like AiRUnion, an alliance of five regional airlines, did not make it. Now, faced with falling passenger volumes, some companies believe that one way out of the crisis is to amend "Work and Rest" legislation to make pilots' work more efficient.

"The inefficient use of flight personnel is one of the main hurdles for the industry right now," said Andrei Martirosov, CEO of UTAir, one of the five largest airlines in Russia.

"The system bears the imprint of the socialist era," he told The Moscow Times at a recent industry forum.

"Pilots receive competitive salaries, so the system of using labor in aviation should also follow international practice," he said, offering as examples an increase of maximum monthly flight time from the current 80 hours, or an adjustment of the length of the flight shift. In other countries, like the United States, maximum monthly flight time can be set as high as 100 hours.

But pilots call such demands hypocritical. "Pilots essentially sell their health, and a failed health check can leave them out of a job at any given moment," said a source in one of Russia's largest airlines' trade unions, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of unnecessarily stirring up a conflict between management and employees.

"In other countries, companies provide insurance of up to $750,000 in such cases, guarantee employment on the ground or lay out other safety nets," he said. "If Russian airlines want pilots to work longer hours, they should do the same."

Right now, such insurance is only available in rare cases and is equivalent to about two months' work, he said.

Still, many pilots are opting to bite the bullet and wait for the turbulent times to pass. "We are in this crisis together with our employers," said Boichuk of the cockpit association. "When the boat starts to draw water, we should be united in bailing it out. Conflict can only destabilize the situation further."

Russia's Air Code allows only Russian citizens to work as pilots for Russian airlines. Although the airlines are lobbying to amend the legislation to lift the barrier, doing so without simultaneously improving working conditions and health insurance might only draw the worst pilots from other countries. "Opening the gates now will hurt flight safety," Boichuk said.

The list of compromises accepted by pilots has grown as several of the largest airlines have started to switch from Russian planes to more fuel-efficient foreign aircraft. In November, S7 said goodbye to its last 33 Russian planes, which collectively employed 600 people. Aeroflot announced a plan late last year to phase out its older Russian planes over the next two years. Currently it has a total of 33 Ilyushin and Tupolev planes. Aeroflot has said it will include the new Russian Sukhoi Superjet 100 in its fleet.

Despite the overall shortage of pilots, plans to retrain the pilots of Russian planes to fly foreign-built planes look increasingly unattainable for cash-strapped airlines. In addition to pilots, Russian planes employ flight navigators and engineers, which are not needed on the foreign craft. Upgrading them to become pilots will cost 3 million rubles per person under a government program announced by Transportation Minister Igor Levitin in March. Levitin said 300 people would be retrained under the 1.3 billion ruble program.

The program's criteria are very strict, requiring the candidates to speak fluent English and be under 45, the trade union source said. "Right now, there are a lot of middle-aged men sitting at home cramming for their English tests," he said.

Fewer Russian Planes

The industry's trend away from Russian planes will eventually force the government to choose between helping the airlines or helping the Russian airplane-building industry, said Sasovo director Smolnikov. Although the flight school plans to phase out the "morally obsolete," fuel-inefficient Antonov jets used to train students, the planes replacing them will also be Russian, he added.

"Airlines using Boeings and Airbuses would like future pilots to train on Cessnas or Pipers, which would make the transition smoother," Smolnikov said. "They sometimes say they want to invest in the school, but then they come here and see our Russian planes."

Sasovo has no foreign aircraft, and most of its planes are not airworthy, parked in neat rows in a section of the airfield and jokingly referred to as "Jurassic Park."

"This is a problem that needs to be solved by the government," Smolnikov said. "Planes are just an instrument for us -- we'll work with whatever is given to us."

The Federal Aviation Agency declined to comment for this article, saying that many of the newest measures related to pilot training are still being hammered out. Russia's largest users of foreign planes -- Aeroflot, S7 and Transaero -- also refused to provide answers to questions about their training programs and hiring practices.

Even if the government successfully retrains 300 navigators and engineers, the new pilots would only make a small dent in an industry that has lost 2,500 flight personnel in the past few months, Boichuk said. About 550 of these people are pilots, some of whom flew on Russian planes in existing airlines and others for the defunct AiRUnion.

"People who have been left out on the street right now are a very expensive resource. If we lose them, we'll have an even bigger deficit once passenger volumes pick up again," Boichuk said.

But many months after AiRUnion disintegrated, few pilots formerly employed by its airlines have found jobs. The same goes for Khabarovsk-based Dalavia, which employed about 2,800 people and ceased operating in October because of its debts.

Only one of the 150 pilots who flew for Domodedovo Airlines has found a job, said Vladimir Akinshev, a former Domodedovo employee and the coordinator of the airline's trade union. The airline was part of AiRUnion.

Since September, its pilots have not been working and are receiving an industry pension of about 6,000 rubles.

"People are filling out applications and going from airline to airline, but nobody is hiring during the crisis," Akinshev said.

A long period of unemployment makes the prospect of finding a new job less likely because the airline would have to spend more money on training before letting the pilot fly again, Akinshev added.

"Pilots will take any job out of despair, but flying is the only work experience that most of us have," he said. "Eventually we will give up and go to work as drivers or doormen."