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Indonesia faces pilot shortage amid air travel boom

At a flying school in the Indonesian city of Bandung, cadets chatted on the tarmac under the scorching sun as they took a break between lessons. “I want to work for an airline and fly a big plane,” said 18-year-old Bunga Indah Pusparini, who has completed 10 of the 18 months of training at the Bandung Pilot Academy. Bunga was the only girl of the crowd of mostly young men, all wearing Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses and jump-suits.

Indonesia is facing a shortage of commercial pilots as domestic air traffic grows by about 20 percent a year and new airlines emerge following the liberalisation of the industry in the early 2000s. Indonesian airlines carried more than 70 million passengers in 2012, as years of solid economic growth have allowed more people to enter the middle class and take to the air.

Hundreds of new airplanes are expected to arrive in the coming years, following major orders placed with Boeing and Airbus by budget carrier Lion Air and state-owned airline Garuda Indonesia. But Indonesia’s 16 flying schools can only produce a quarter of the estimated 800 new pilots needed every year, according to the Transportation Ministry. “Flying schools in Indonesia can’t keep up with the growth of the air travel industry,” said Ikhsan Amin, director of business development at the Bandung Pilot Academy.

Local airlines have resorted to hiring pilots from countries in Asia, Europe and South America, but many are young, and only stay long enough to gain some experience, said Amin. “After they clock 2,000 flying hours they usually leave,” he said. Herry Bakti Gumay, the director general of civil aviation at the Transportation Ministry, said two recent non-fatal air accidents involved junior foreign co-pilots. On April 13, a new Boeing 737-800 operated by Lion Air missed the runway and crashed into the sea off the resort island of Bali. All 108 people on board survived.

A preliminary government report revealed that the co-pilot was flying the plane before handing the controls to the captain at about 150 feet because he could not see the runway. But Gumay was careful not to attribute this or the other accident to the co-pilots’ inexperience or foreign nationality. “Every accident has its own characteristics, so we can’t just attribute all accidents to one factor,” Gumay said. Indonesia has improved its reputation for poor aviation safety, by expanding flying schools, training new air traffic controllers and aircraft technicians, and subjecting airlines to special audits following a string of air accidents in the past decade.

But Dudi Sudibyo, an aviation observer and chief editor of aerospace magazine Angkasa, said the government did not anticipate the growth in the aviation industry. “Our messy bureaucracy also means it has been very slow to catch up,” he said. Lion Air general affairs director Edward Sirait said that of his carrier’s 1,200 pilots, only 2.5 percent were foreigners, and the supply of Indonesian pilots was improving.

“Indonesia virtually stopped producing pilots” when flying schools closed in the wake of the 1997-98 economic crisis, he said, but “since 2004 we have had a boom in the airline industry and new flying schools have been established.” He said Lion paid local and foreign pilots equally, with a captain earning as much as 12,000 dollars a month. Sirait said foreign pilots could be phased out entirely after 2015 because by then Lion Air’s own flying school will be producing 200 pilots a year.

Garuda and another local airline, Susi Air, also operate flying schools. Amin’s two-year-old academy, located within the Husen Sastranegara airport complex in Bandung, about 150 kilometres south-east of Jakarta, has a large hangar, five Cessna propeller-powered aircraft, a training area adjacent to the home base and experienced instructors, including two foreigners, he said. “Not only do we train flying skills, but we also develop common sense, academic knowledge, awareness and captainship,” he said.

Even as Indonesia’s aviation sector tackles the pilot shortage, it is also struggling to find new aircraft technicians and air traffic controllers. “Skilled workers are so rare that new airlines hijack employees of other airlines,” said Amin. Susi Pudjiastuti, chief executive of Susi Air, whose fleet of small aircraft flies to remote corners of the archipelago, said about 99 percent of its pilots were foreigners. “At the moment we have the advantage of the economic crisis in Europe and the US and pilots are coming here, but later when their economy booms again it will be tough for Indonesia to get pilots,” she said.

Ahmad Pathoni, "Indonesia faces pilot shortage amid air travel boom," Business recorder. 2013-09-07.
Keywords: Social science , Social issues , Social needs , Social crisis , Social rights , Airlines-Indonesia , Business development , Traveling , Pilots , Transportation , Airlines