The first batch of graduates from a shortened flight-training programme is ready to get its wings and fly passengers on commercial routes. The new curriculum - known as the multi-crew pilots license (MPL) - departs from conventional methods by slashing actual school time both on the ground and in the air, and making greater use of flight simulators.
The international airline industry, faced with a growing passenger load and a shortage of pilots, is waiting to get its first flight crews from the new programme. But experts warn that the graduates of this new curriculum simply may not have been trained sufficiently to fly.
While the industry says the new programme improves the ability of new co-pilots to function as full flight crew members, critics argue that it's a quick-fix scheme to overcome pilot shortages that could seriously compromise safety standards.
The programme was conceived in 2000 by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN agency in charge of civil air traffic. It designed the programme to rely more on simulators and to train students from the start to function as crew members on the specific types of aircraft they will operate during their careers, rather than commanders.
MPL's supporters say it marks a significant improvement, since trainees are placed immediately into a multi-crew environment, working closely with other pilots rather than spending long periods flying solo, as is required by the present schooling system.
But critics say the changes are motivated mainly by economic considerations and by the airlines' desperation for pilots.
"Simulators are good to teach system operations, but real flying is needed to learn airmanship, the very basis of safety," Philip von Schoppenthau, secretary-general of the Brussels-based European Cockpit Association, a pilots' union, has said in a statement.
The new programme will begin graduating pilots this year from schools in Australia, the Philippines and Denmark. The first six cadets who will finish are being trained in Australia by Alteon and are from China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines, also a China-based carrier.
So far, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and most European regulatory agencies have not given the go-ahead for using MPL. But pressure has been building, and it will likely soon be accepted by established air training academies. The MPL allows a trainee to qualify as a co-pilot in 45 weeks.
Under present rules, trainee pilots must first complete about 150 hours for a commercial pilot's license, the basic permit. The air transport pilot's license - the advanced credentials required to fly a commercial airliner - requires pilots to log about 1,500 flying hours. The entire process takes around two years.
In comparison, the MPL would only require about 64 hours of actual flight time as pilot-in-command, because the emphasis is on simulator training. The ICAO argues that the new curriculum saves on the time a trainee is required to "punch holes in the sky", meaning flying solo in a piston-engined trainer.
Critics trenchantly point out that it takes about 45 weeks to obtain an ordinary driver's license in Europe. They say in that short a span, trainees will not even have enough time to learn basic English - the language of international aviation.
Over the past several years the growth of air traffic in the Middle East and Asia and the proliferation of budget airlines in Europe and the United States have created a drastic shortage of airline pilots. With global air traffic predicted to grow by 5 to 6 per cent annually over the next two decades, the shortage will only become more acute. The primary demand for pilots comes from China, India, Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf region.