Pilots face triple the debt of university students, says BALPA

Main picture © British Airways

Aspiring pilots are completing their training with debts of up to £130,000, more than three times the debt of university students. The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) says the high cost of training, which many pilots have financed by borrowing, is a huge barrier for prospective pilots looking to join the profession.

Historically, airlines paid for an individual’s training, but nowadays most trainees have to cover the cost with loans from the bank or by borrowing from family. While a university student can expect to graduate with student loans of around £35,000 – £40,000, a trainee pilot will rack up a debt of between £70,000 and £100,000 for basic training with no guaranteed job lined up. They also have to find another £30,000 for training on specific aircraft types.

32% of BALPA pilots would not recommend the career to young people and the Association wants to make sure hopefuls are realistic about the challenges faced by pilots. BALPA is attending recruitment fairs to help future pilots compare the reality to the dream. It is offering trainee pilots special membership as part of its nextGen project to welcome them into the pilot family and provide mentoring and support from experienced pilots.

BALPA is also lobbying policymakers to encourage them to offer would-be pilots more support and protect the quality and safety standards of the profession. BALPA wants the EU to outlaw some of the worst employment practices that are becoming more common and is encouraging airlines to agree permanent contracts and move away from employing pilots through temporary work agencies or on zero hour contracts.

“There have been huge steps taken in recent years to get people from all social classes into university. Why should the pilot profession be exempt?”

24 year old Dale Mudie is a BALPA nextGen member working towards his Air Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). He says debt is a serious concern and it is putting talented people off flying as a career.

“Unless your parents have bundles of cash, there is no easy way to obtain the finances that are needed to be able to undertake the training. The money requirement is very much a social class filter, with only a handful being able to break through, by nothing else but sheer determination.

“I’m funding my training myself by working full time in a second career. My parents have re-mortgaged their house to help me out too.

“There have been huge steps taken in recent years to get people from all social classes into university. Why should the pilot profession be exempt from this? I appreciate that if the government was to offer student pilot loans to everyone, then the industry would become more saturated than it is now. Perhaps the answer is to offer a limited amount of loans to potential pilots who display the correct aptitude and level of passion, but that lack the financial resources to pursue their career.”

BALPA says rumours of a worldwide shortage of pilots may encourage people to take on the debt in the hope they’ll be spotted by recruiters. The Boeing 2015 Pilot and Technical Outlook forecasted the aviation industry will need more than 500,000 new pilots over the next 20 years. But BALPA is urging caution over this projection saying airlines have not been recruiting in the last few years and the flying schools are still qualifying pilots each year adding to the pilot pool.

Wendy Pursey, Head of Member services at BALPA says, “The aviation industry is vital to the UK economy and for it to thrive it needs a supply of highly trained pilots. But the trainees of today have to incur huge debts or rely on the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to get their qualifications. At the end of the course they can be placed in a ‘holding pool,’ sometimes waiting months before being placed with a partner airline.

“We believe this financial burden has a real impact on the pilots and has wider repercussions for the aviation industry. More needs to be done to ensure fresh talent are supported early in their career.”

BALPA has launched the nextGen Programme which seeks to protect the profession by reaching down to these new entrants and giving them a voice.  Through the nextGen project BALPA is striving for equal opportunity to ensure future pilots are drawn from all parts of society and that the profession attracts the best talent and not just those best able to pay for training. For more on safeguarding your investment, click here.