Japanese low-cost carriers hit hard by pilot shortage

May 25th, 2014 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Onward and upward: Plane taking off from Narita airport

Onward and upward: Plane taking off from Narita International Airport

Low-cost carriers (LCC ) — airlines with cheaper fares than standard carriers — came relatively late to Japan. Peach Aviation was the first in March 2012, followed by Jetstar Japan, an affiliate of Australia’s Qantas Airlines, in July of the same year, and then Air Asia Japan, which has since changed its name to Vanilla Air, for some reason. (Skymark, which also charges less that most airlines, is technically not an LCC.)

As of March, LCCs accounted for 7.5 percent of domestic passengers, which isn’t bad, and growth seemed assured, but suddenly all three bargain airlines have hit a wall. Vanilla recently announced that it will cancel 154 flights, or 20 percent of its schedule, for June, and Peach said it would curtail its own schedule by more than 2,000 flights through October. Jetstar had planned to expand its flight coverage this year but has since postponed those plans.

The reason is a serious shortage of pilots, in particular flight captains. Vanilla says it has had personnel problems recently due to pilots quitting or taking sick leave, but its president, Tomonori Ishii, has assured the public that it will address the problem by “borrowing” personnel from its parent, ANA, but on a temporary basis. Of Peach’s 52 captains, eight were out of action due to illness or injury, but, in fact, the problem is more intractable.

According to the transport ministry, the fact that all three LCCs launched at about the same time meant there was a concerted scramble for flight personnel and not enough human resources to choose from. Most of the pilots they hired, in fact, were former Japan Airlines employees who were let go after the company filed for bankruptcy in 2010. However, JAL has since recovered, thanks to government help, and many returned to the fold, which isn’t surprising. JAL pays much better than any of the LCCs ever could. Though none of the airlines publish pilot salaries, it’s generally assumed that captains for JAL and ANA make twice as much on average as LCC captains in Japan.

The transport ministry estimates that Japan will require 9,000 pilots by 2020, or 20-30 percent more than the country has now, and while six years may sound like enough time to accomplish that task, it takes at least 10 years to train a commercial airline captain. Right now there isn’t much of a pool of young novice pilots entering the profession, and it’s assumed that most will opt for JAL or ANA. Moreover, the ministry points out that, generationally speaking, the bulk of Japanese captains are in their 50s, and this cohort will retire by 2030 with no equal sized cohort to replace them.

Several other factors will exacerbate the shortage in Japan, especially with regard to LCCs. One airline-related blog says that it costs JAL and ANA up to ¥100 million to train a single pilot to the level where he or she can captain a commercial jet, and LCCs don’t have that kind of money, but there are few outlets for young people to learn how to be a commercial pilot outside of on-the-job training. Unlike the U.S. or Europe, Japan has very few private flight training schools.

According to Yomiuri Shimbun, as of January 2013, Japan had 5,686 pilots, among which 39 percent had graduated from the national aviation college and 34 percent had gone directly from university to work in one of the airlines, which trained them. LCCs don’t have training programs and don’t have the money to start them anyway. Also, JAL and ANA’s certification process is notoriously difficult, which is why it takes so long and so much money to make a captain.

Also unlike the U.S., Japan doesn’t have a large pool of ex-military pilots to dip into. The Sankei Shimbun points out that the defense ministry is going to revive the “allotment system” that supplies pilots from the air self-defense forces to commercial airlines. This system was halted some years ago when the government, in a bid to curb the infamous amakudari (descent from heaven) practice of private companies hiring former civil servants, forbid ASDF pilots from getting jobs with JAL or ANA. But in any case, Sankei estimates that reviving the allotment system will mean only about 10 military pilots a year will become commercial pilots. There just aren’t enough in the first place. In any case, they will have to be thoroughly retrained and LCCs can’t do it.

Another alternative is foreign pilots, which some LCCs are already using, but since the pilot shortage is worldwide and Asian airlines are currently expanding at a rapid rate — 9,000 more will be needed in the region between now and 2030 — the competition for personnel will be fierce. In fact, Japanese LCCs may have better luck attracting American pilots, some of whom make as little as ¥5 million a year. Even Japan LCCs pay better than that.

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3 Responses

  1. American pilots are certainly poorly paid, but what keeps many of them from working abroad is the same thing that keeps everyone else in the world homebound- a general aversion to living in another country. Now many companies that do hire international pilots provide transportation to pilots during down time. For example, a pilot could work three weeks on, then fly back to their base airport for a week off. Even though this pattern mirrors what they’d be doing back home, working for a domestic (American) company, many pilots just aren’t willing to take the plunge.

    That said, Japanese companies also suffer from a little phobia when it comes to hiring foreign pilots. To minimize the perceived risk of working with a non-Japanese they often work through a contractor. Sadly, this keeps foreign pilots from experiencing the stability and benefits that Japanese workers get. That’s nothing new in Japan though.

    As for growing more Japanese pilots, I like to remind my students that pilots are required to speak the international language of aviation, English. If any of them are looking for an affordable back door into the career there’s always community college. http://academics.bigbend.edu/programs/aviation/Pages/default.aspx

  2. This is what happens when you don’t invest. Something that seems to be widespread in many idnustries and many countries. Everyone wants profits but noone stops to think what the price of it is.
    Industries like this deserve the bed they made for themselves.

  3. That is relatively bold to state they did not invest in themselves. Japan is a country with exceptionally limited General Aviation, which puts them at a distinct disadvantage because their training environment is very limited.

    How do I know this? I flight instruct at the institution that is considered to be the prestigious in the world, the University of North Dakota. There are well maintained, uncontrolled airports through out the entire country that General Aviation relies, and because of that we have an outstanding training environment. This allows us to do effective, high quality training, without having to be limited by the infrastructure.

    I have had the honor to work with 7 exceptional Japanese students from Tokai University. Although their families paid their way, their total cost of training, from their tuition at Tokai, to flight training/room and board, costs about $115,000; everything from Commercial Single/Multi Engine Land with Instrument Rating with the FAA, to their Commercial/Instrument Rating JCAB. They are paying about the same as an American undergraduate. That cost cannot be matched in Japan.

    I’m hoping to take my career to Japan as well. Yes there are barriers that keep Americans from going, but I feel that challenge is less ominous when the reason I want to go there is because I want to be there; I love their language, their culture, and their delicious food. A captain I know from ANA said the shortage should work into my favor, but that finding a Japanese wife is the best option. Mostly because their immigration policies are difficult to deal with; but, their policies are as much of a barrier to me as they are to the few Japanese flight instructors I work with who want to have a career in the States. It will be interesting to see where the global pilot shortage will take us.


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