Pilots say the cost of training and high student loan debt are worsening the shortage in their numbers.

A pilot shortage is hitting airlines around the world and in this country, and is set to worsen. Boeing forecasts that 790,000 pilots will be needed over the next 20 years.

"The aviation industry continues to face a pilot labour supply challenge, raising concern about the existence of a global pilot shortage in the near term," said Keith Cooper, vice president of training and professional services at Boeing Global Services.

There is now a shortage of 250,000 pilots worldwide, and that is predicted to grow.

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The New Zealand Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is concerned about the shortage and it will be among the areas focused on at next week's Aviation New Zealand conference.

Association president Tim Robinson said financial and structural barriers were threatening the sustainability of pilot supply.

The overall growth rate in aviation graduates was only about 2 to 3 per cent of the total number of commercial pilots in New Zealand.

''This pales in comparison to around 10 per cent which the international and domestic airlines are experiencing, in this prolonged and impressive growth cycle,'' said Robinson.

A major driver for Air New Zealand included the new routes it has opened up throughout the Americas and Asia, in response to booming demand from both outbound and inbound travellers.

Writing for next month's ALPA newsletter, Robinson said there was no current shortage of people wanting to work as pilots, and importantly, train in New Zealand for an aviation career.

''It's the financial and structural barriers that exist which is threatening the sustainability of pilot supply.''

Over the past two years the association has been publicly calling for planning to meet requirements in the near future.

Despite the huge growth in aviation and travel during the past 10 years, only 450 full-time student loans (for both fixed wing and helicopter training) can be drawn down annually by aviation students.

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With a limit of about $40,000 paid per loan, on average a pilot requires two-and-a-half loans to complete training through to a commercial pilot licence / instrument rating / multi-engine qualification.

Robinson said graduates needed to come up with the money themselves to fund the remaining flying hours required – a luxury many cannot afford.

New Zealand pilots are spreading their wings to meet global demands. Photo / Grant Bradley
New Zealand pilots are spreading their wings to meet global demands. Photo / Grant Bradley

To meet both the flying hours requirement and student debt repayments, many new pilots head overseas.

''Others sadly leave the industry disillusioned with the ability to build their flying hours, or cope financially on low initial wages and high debt levels.''

That meant that once retiring pilots' jobs were filled, only about 80 new commercial pilots a year were entering the industry.

''Therefore, to sustain current industry growth in the medium term we need over triple this number, to between 250-300 pilots trained per year,'' said Robinson, who is also an Air New Zealand pilot.

That would mean updating the number of student loans available to allow at least 600 loans for trainees to attend New Zealand's flying schools. An increase in the amount of the student loan would also see a greater uptake by promising trainees who, under current funding, couldn't normally afford the additional training costs.

''For those going on to entry level career positions, we also want to work with industry to increase wage levels so that pilots can better repay debt and still afford day-to-day living expenses - a major cause of stress.''

However, there is no sign of any change in the student loan policy.

"We're not currently considering plans to change existing arrangements," Education Minister Chris Hipkins said today.

Robinson said the association was directly working with Air New Zealand to get a career pathways programme off the ground.

That meant promising graduates could enter directly into the airline from their partner flight schools, in Invercargill, Christchurch and Nelson, and Massey Aviation in Palmerston North.

Massey has partnered with Jetstar in this country to provide a similar career pathway option so new pilot graduates can move onto a Q300 first officer position with Jetstar Regional.

The scheme was announced in May and the airline will provide mentoring by Qantas Group pilots during trainees' studies and a direct pathway to an airline when they graduate.

Successful students will be invited to complete an intensive 12-week airline transition course for between six and 10 pilots at the completion of their degree. There is no financial help for the extra training.

Jetstar has about 130 pilots in New Zealand - 45 in the turbo-prop regional operation and the remainder in its A320 domestic and Tasman/Cook Islands operation.

This month, the first of six Massey graduates were found for the training programme. Four will begin the transition course in September and a further two in March next year, and a spokesman said the first pilots from the programme would be flying on Jetstar regional services from the end of November.

Across the Tasman, Qantas says it will invest $22 million in a regionally based flying school.

Aviation New Zealand chief executive John Nicholson said there had been a slight increase in the number of commercial pilots graduating in the past two years, but it was well short of the numbers six or seven years ago.

The smaller the airline, the more they were affected as bigger airlines recruited from smaller ones. Emirates has visited New Zealand to recruit pilots, and experienced foreign captains in China can make close to $400,000 a year tax-free.

Flight instructors were now in short supply and Nicholson said shortages of engineers loomed.

''A lot of the engineers are older and looking to get out.''

Robinson said if industry funding requirements were addressed by the Government, and the career pathway schemes operated successfully, it would meet both industry needs and offering further career options for students.

New Zealand has some advantages for pilots. Robinson said commercial airline pilots in this country operated under some of the fairest industrial relations in the world, but "gig economy-type'' contracts were becoming the norm rather than the exception in other countries.

Filling the cockpit

Pilots:

Boeing says that over the next 20 years, the Asia-Pacific region will need 261,000 new pilots. North America will require 206,000, Europe 146,000, the Middle East 64,000, Latin America 57,000, Africa 29,000 and Russia/ Central Asia 27,000.

Technicians:

The need is largest in the Asia-Pacific region, which will require 257,000 new technicians. Airlines in North America will require 189,000, Europe 132,000, the Middle East 66,000, Latin America 55,000, Africa 28,000, and Russia / Central Asia 27,000.

Cabin crew:

Over the next 20 years, the largest projected growth in demand is in the Asia-Pacific region, with a requirement for 321,000 new cabin crew. Europe will require 187,000, North America 174,000, the Middle East 97,000, Latin America 53,000, Russia / Central Asia 29,000, and Africa 29,000.