Bangladesh's national carrier Biman recruited seven pilots for Boeing-737 in September this year, following a lengthy six-month selection process. The monthly financial package offered was nearly Tk9 lakh before tax. The appointments were on a contractual basis and did not include insurance coverage for medical and loss of license, privileges typically offered to pilots worldwide.
However, the experience of pilots with Air India is completely different as one of the pilots recruited by Biman received a job offer from the company within 48 hours of an online interview. The monthly financial package offered by Air India was $14,500 or nearly Tk16 lakh after tax, more than double what Biman had proposed. This offer also included the essential privileges, and the pilot would receive an additional Rs60,000, equivalent to Tk79,000.
This significant difference in financial benefits and recruitment processes highlights why Biman is struggling to attract and retain pilots, especially amidst the high demand for pilots globally following the pandemic.
Biman's financial package for contractual pilots for the Boeing-737 is even 25% less than what regular pilots are currently earning. What is more, this happens at a time when global airlines have been increasing pilot pay by 40% to 45% to address the shortage of pilots and capitalise on the surge in travel after the pandemic.
According to Oliver Wyman, an American management consulting firm, the global aviation industry is projected to face a shortage of nearly 80,000 pilots by 2032.
"As air travel demand continues to recover in 2022, our most recent forecast now projects that demand for pilots will outstrip supply in most regions globally between 2022 and 2024 — and continue to worsen over the next decade," said the firm in its analysis posted in its website.
Air India, which placed the largest order of 470 places to expand international operations, recently announced that it has hired more than 600 pilots since April 2023 and plans to recruit 900 pilots by the end of the year.
Similarly, UAE flag carrier Emirates is planning a substantial global recruitment campaign, while Riyadh Air, a Saudi Arabia-based startup airline, and intends to hire 700 pilots in the next three years, all in response to the international pilot shortage.
Biman also has plans to expand its fleet by adding 10 more planes from Airbus. However, its poor recruitment policy has left existing planes sitting idle, exacerbating the pilot shortage and putting the carrier at risk of revenue loss.
The limited response to Biman's pilot recruitment calls for various aircraft types indicates that the job offers are not competitive in the current market.
For instance, when Biman called for applications to recruit eight pilots for Boeing-737 this March, it received responses from only eight pilots, leaving no room for selection.
Out of the eight applicants, seven were picked by Biman, as the other one pilot could not clear the required documentation yet, according to Biman officials.
In contrast, US-Bangla, the largest private carrier in Bangladesh, employs at least 25 pilots for the same aircraft type, but they are reluctant to work for the national carrier due to lower financial benefits.
Another application call for Boeing-787 pilots also reflects the shortcomings in Biman's recruitment process.
When Biman called for applications to hire 14 Boeing-787 pilots in March, it received not a single application. The reason was that Biman required Type Rated pilots, which are not available in the domestic market, as Biman is the only airline in Bangladesh with Boeing-787 aircraft.
Type Rated pilots are those certified to operate a specific type of aircraft.
Later, Biman hired six foreign pilots for the Boeing-787, but two of them have already left the carrier for better opportunities, according to Biman insiders.
Speaking to TBS, several pilots have pointed out that Biman's application calls for Boeing-737 and Boeing-777 did not specify "Type Rated" or "Non-Type Rated." However, for Boeing-787, the carrier mentioned "Type Rated" despite the absence of such pilots in the domestic market.
The pilots argue that had Biman called for "Non-Type Rated" pilots, it could have attracted experienced pilots from other aircraft types and provided them with Boeing-787 training, a practice adopted by many global airlines amidst the ongoing pilot shortage.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, they observed that such application calls were only a waste of time and Biman finally had to hire foreign pilots at higher costs.
Furthermore, as pilot demand remains high in the European market with more attractive financial benefits, foreign pilots who joined Biman are actively seeking better opportunities.
Meanwhile, existing Biman pilots are receiving job offers from Air India and Riyadh Air, both engaged in extensive recruitment drives, said the pilots.
What Biman MD says over pilot crisis
In a recent interview with The Business Standard, Shafiul Azim, the managing director of Biman, said that they are feeling the shortage of pilots the most and are working on it as their top priority. "We hope to cover the major crisis we are facing within this year," he added.
"Since we are trying to expand our networks, we have kept our hiring process ongoing accordingly. It actually depends on how your frequency is increasing and, most importantly, how many pilots you will need and what kind of pilots will be required, all related to each other. So, as we are expanding the network, we will naturally need more pilots. Besides, there is a shortage of pilots at present as well."
When asked about the delay in the recruitment process, he said, "In the overall aviation sector, there is currently a high demand for pilots. Since we are maintaining standards, we can't just take anyone. We have to recruit everyone according to our standard rating, following the rules and regulations. In this case, there is actually very little room for hastiness. We are hiring [pilots] according to our plan."
How pilot shortage costs Biman
A severe pilot shortage is causing losses for Biman in two significant ways: Firstly, overworked pilots are at risk of accidents, and secondly, the airline cannot fully utilize its fleet, leading to revenue loss.
Several Biman pilots told TBS that they frequently exceed their duty limits and are often denied their scheduled days off.
One Biman pilot recently expressed the stress of overwork in a Facebook post, emphasising the unaddressed issue of stress among the pilot workforce.
Citing his own health issues, he said "I have predicted that many of our colleagues will fall sick, if not perish under the present precarious work environment we are into. I am just trying to survive."
Besides, Biman despite having largest and most modern fleet ever, cannot not utilise planes due to pilot shortage.
For example, while wide-body aircraft like the Boeing 787, 777, and 737 can operate 13 to 16 hours per day on average, Biman's utilisation as of June was limited to 10 to 13 hours per day, according to the airline.
Aircraft utilisation is a crucial metric for airlines and operators, directly impacting operational efficiency and profitability.
Biman, which operated in 28 international destinations in 2000 with fewer than 10 aircraft, has modernised its fleet over the past decade, doubling its number to 21. However, due to the pilot shortage, it currently serves only 21 destinations.
Despite generating good earnings on some international routes, Biman is unable to increase flight frequency due to the ongoing pilot shortage, as reported by officials.
Global scenario of pilot crisis
With the rebound in global passenger travel from the first to the last quarter of 2022 and through 2023, many airlines have continued to struggle with high pilot demands and deficits in pilot supply, starting in Asia and Pacific, North America, the Middle East, and Europe where the shortfall in pilot supply is most acutely felt compared to other regions.
Globally, pilots are switching airlines for better payment and work environment taking advantage of shortages.
Other airlines are having to look outside their home markets, competing with China, where experienced foreign captains are in high demand and airlines offer annual salaries of up to $314,000 - tax free, according to a Reuters report.
Quoting Andrew Herdman, director general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, Reuters said, "There is not so much a shortage of pilots as a rising cost of attracting and retaining the pilots you need, particularly the experienced ones." "There is a bidding war going on."
Reuters quoted Dan Adamus, president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) Canada, as saying that Canadian pilots are generally getting pay raises, although salaries at US mainline carriers are higher than at Air Canada AC.TO.
"It's certainly harder for airlines to recruit qualified pilots," he said, which has led carriers to raise pay. "The pilots are going to go where there is better pay."
He estimated that about 1,000 Canadian pilots are flying for carriers overseas such as Emirates.
Pilot crisis will be intensified in near future which reflects in the projection of Boeing and Airbus over aviation expansion.
Boeing and Airbus both recently released forecasts showing an upbeat outlook for future sales with Asia leading the way.
Boeing projected global demand for 42,595 new commercial jets by 2042, valued at $8 trillion. Boeing released its 2023 Commercial Market Outlook (CMO), the company's forecast of 20-year demand for commercial airplanes and services, in advance of the Paris Air Show.
Key findings of CMO include: passenger traffic continuing to outpace global economic growth of 2.6% when global fleet nearly doubling to 48,600 jets, expanding 3.5% per year.