An ATR 72-600 simulator at the company's training base in Toulouse, France in May 2019.

Airlines stare down simulator logjam once pilot furloughs hit

The departure of thousands of airline pilots will cause a retraining crunch. It's a hit airlines will take on the way down and again on the way back up.

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Release Date
June 8, 2020
Airlines stare down simulator logjam once pilot furloughs hit
Split into two parts, this analysis focuses on the effects of seniority list movement on training and industry simulator bandwidth. Following in part two will be a discussion of the dynamics of the seniority list itself, and how overall pilot costs are affected during a furlough scenario.

  • As pilot furloughs are considered at cash-strapped airlines re-adjusting their businesses to demand after COVID-19, aligning the remaining pilots to the surviving fleet will require a massive retraining exercise.
  • For multi-fleet carriers, such as Delta Air Lines, for example, the increase in simulator hours required in the next 12 months could be almost two-thirds higher, even with 20% fewer pilots.
  • A second wave of retraining will also result as traffic returns and full pilot rosters are once again required to meet demand.

The abundance of aircraft parked around the world brings another, very human and more personal abundance – pilots. Without passengers to fly, aircraft will remain parked. With aircraft parked, some pilots find themselves the subject of a furlough. Yet, even as the industry stares down a potential sharp reduction in the overall pilot workforce, the massive change could simultaneously spark a major new wave of retraining that would overwhelm the global simulator infrastructure.

Related: Coronavirus will force airlines to make familiar asks of pilots to stay afloat

The big four airlines of the United States, American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines have indicated an oversupply of pilots, which is expected to extend into the 2021 summer season. While the $2.2 trillion CARES act prevents involuntary lay-offs until October 1 for carriers who accepted funds. Already, discussions between pilot labor leadership and airlines regarding the need to address the temporary oversupply of pilots have begun.

Related: The airplanes that have survived the aviation apocalypse

While employees across the airline industry are bracing for lay-offs or furloughs, the dynamics of the pilot profession create a unique and intricate dilemma. Since pilots are specifically trained for the type of aircraft they operate, they require intensive and expensive training for each different type of aircraft to which they are assigned. Further complicated by an industry standard and pilot-sacred seniority list, the strict hierarchy — agnostic to aircraft type — creates distinct challenges for airlines as they look to assign pilots to a  future fleet where types are being phased out en masse.

A Delta Air Lines Airbus A350 simulator is positioned for takeoff from Honolulu Airport in 2017.

The typically stable flow of progression provides a consistent, and predictable amount of training events as pilots slowly build seniority to transition to higher paying positions. In periods of rapid contraction, however, this dynamic can create a snap-back of the seniority list, triggering thousands of training events to all happen at once. This creates a potential snow-balling effect on required retraining events for the airline, with more expected as things return to normal.

Related: Confusion among U.S. airlines as airplanes fly virtually empty to get bailout funds

This eventual return to “normal” poses another, more dangerous risk to the airlines as they look to secure simulator capacity. Should demand return quicker than an airline can rehire and retrain pilots back into the larger fleet, it could mean the loss of precious market share and pricing power for the coming years.

This looming scenario also is key for simulator and training providers like CAE, L3Harris, TRU Simulation + Training, and Flight Safety International as they plan for their future.

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