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As airline life gets set to return to normal - are there enough pilots?

A general view of Qantas planes at Brisbane domestic airport. Source: AAP

With the international border due to re-open in November and some of the states and territories preparing to lift their border restrictions once vaccination targets are achieved, the airlines are busy preparing for the inevitable increase in demand. But finding enough pilots who are able to get back in the skies relatively quickly if there's a surge in demand could be a major challenge.

The Australian Federation of Air Pilots (AFAP) is a union and professional body for commercial pilots. The President of the AFAP, Captain Louise Pole, says around 1,000 pilots have effectively been grounded during the pandemic and getting them back in the air would take several months.     

"If they haven't flown for 18 months they'll have to do some ground school which takes a few weeks and then simulator sessions, at least four sessions, sometimes more, depending on what they're going to be flying and then after they've completed their simulator checks the will need to go into an aeroplane and just practice being back online again so they don't have to be checked there. So it could take multiple months for a pilot to be ready to fly again if they haven't been flying at all which is the case for around about 1000 of our pilots."  

Virgin Australia is introducing nine additional 737-800 aircraft from this month  and says it's re-hiring at least 130 pilots that were made redundant prior to the airline entering administration.

The airline says it's monitored what's occurred overseas to help shape its approach to pilot training and has kept its pilots flying over the last few months.

"We have engaged with our airline partners and global preeminent safety bodies to understand challenges that other airlines have faced as they return to pre-COVID levels of operations. This information has helped to shape our approach to Pilot training. We have kept all of our pilots current during the last few months so that they are ready to go when the ramp up happens.  This has been an investment for us, but one that means we are going to be able to rapidly step up flying when we need to."

Qantas says it recognised very early in the pandemic that it needed to redesign its program for pilots. It says over 95 per cent of Qantas pilots feel the airline's return to work program has given them the skills and confidence to return to safe and efficient flying. 

And as for pilots stood down on a long term basis, such as the A380 pilots who had been flying some of the international routes, the airline says it's got a program in place so they can return to work.     

"We developed a skills preservation program for our pilots who are not flying for extended periods, such as our A380 pilots. This includes two days of ground training and flight simulator sessions every 90 days."

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SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at https://www.sbs.com.au/language/coronavirus

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