Colombia’s airline industry is expanding at a rapid pace. International flights grew by almost a third last year and are on the increase again in 2011. But such rapid expansion comes at a cost: the country is running out of pilots.
“There’s a lack of skilled crews in the country,” says Gilma Usaga of Avianca, Colombia’s largest airline. “We need flight instructors, commanders and co-pilots that have enough flight hours, up-to-date operation licences and speak different languages.”
Part of the problem is money. Wages for local aviadores tend to start at around €2,000 a month, but that figure can triple if pilots choose to work for an airline in Asia or the Middle East, often offering tax exemptions and housing aid.
Becoming a good aviator takes time. On average, captains are required to have at least 1,000 hours of flight experience – but Colombia’s airlines can’t leave their planes parked for so long. Driven by an improvement in national security and a dynamic economy, the country is finally attracting the travelling crowds: in 2010, international passenger numbers in Colombia grew 31 per cent and the number has already increased 16 per cent in the first quarter of this year.
On the back of this growth in tourism, Avianca reported a $3.1bn turnover in 2010 and expects the figure to increase 63 per cent by 2015. Like Avianca, most of the nation’s carriers have been struck by the sudden bonanza and are boosting their fleets radically.
Flight schools in Colombia are working at full speed to supply the demand. “We have no vacancies,” explains Captain Juan Carlos de Greiff, head instructor Los Halcones academy in Medellín. “We’re aiming to graduate 120 pilots every year, but this is still not enough manpower for the industry’s needs.”
Although encouraging, this voracious progress may be putting aside conventional business practices. “Some of my colleagues haven’t had a holiday in over four years,” says an experienced Avianca pilot who asked to remain anonymous. By law, it’s illegal to hire overseas pilots in Colombia, unless it’s for training purposes.
As long as Asian and Middle Eastern carriers are able to offer sky-high salaries, Colombia’s airline industry is in for a rough ride.