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Air travel takes off, but pilot recruitment stalls

 There are more people taking to the skies in the Middle East, which is a double-edged sword in itself. On the one hand travel is taking off. On the other, overcrowding is a threat and the industry needs to recruit more pilots, who should be better trained.

But to begin with, what’s the good news?

More on cloud 9

The Middle East grabbed a five per cent slice from global passenger travel in 2016 last year, International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported.

This happened on the strength of 206 million passengers in the air, nine per cent more than a year earlier.

Middle East travel was only two per cent lower than the global market. According to IATA, airlines carried 3.8 billion passengers, seven per cent higher than the number in 2015. As for Americans, they took up one fifth of all air space combined in 2016.

Saj Ahmad, Chief Analyst at StrategicAero Research, told AMEinfo: “The growth is largely based on the continued preference by passengers wanting to use modern key hubs like Dubai and Abu Dhabi because of the high quality and value for money derived by flying on Emirates, flydubai and Etihad. This trend has been the case for at least the best part of a decade and shows no real slowdown.”

Read: Emirates places Dubai at the center of global travel

Leading the growth in 2017

An article published in the beginning of the year by Forbes predicted that the Middle East would be the aviation industry’s fastest-growing region of the world in 2017, based on rating agency Moody’s forecasts, but mainly focusing on new airline capacity and revenue passenger kilometers (RPK).

“The Middle East and Asia-Pacific will continue to lead among all regions, with Global RPK growth of nine per cent and seven per cent, respectively,” Forbes quoted Jonathan Root, Vice President at Moody’s, as saying.

“However, these rates represent declines of 1.8 and 1.9 percentage points in their respective growth rates.”

The slowing rates in these categories were blamed almost solely on low oil prices, which have had negative impacts on the region’s GDP growth, not to mention placing most budgets in deficit.

Moody’s expects GDP growth in the Gulf in 2017-18 to remain weak by historical standards, with an average of 1.6% across the GCC and only 0.7 per cent in Saudi.

“Even so, the Middle East is still expected to add the newest capacity this year, with the number of seats growing by 10 per cent,” said Root.

Read: Online travel leader Wego attracts Dubai venture capital

Growth facing headwind

According to ICAO, a 2013 initiative of the International Civil Aviation Organization, Middle East’s total passenger traffic will increase by 5.2 per cent annually until 2032 and 5.2 million jobs will reap benefits of the industry by 2034, having a $489bn contribution to GDP.

But there are many challenges, starting with air congestion.

The overall efficiency of the air travel management system commensurate with the level of predicted traffic growth should be increased through improved airspace design and organization, but also harmonization, integration and collaboration among aviation stakeholders,” said the ICAO report.

Ahmad said: “Overcapacity remains a key threat. With airlines all chasing finite traffic, this means fares and yields are tumbling. Either new routes will change that dynamic or we’ll end up seeing casualties. Certainly, the likes of SalamAir, Jazeera and flynas all look very precarious right now.”

ICAO added that as aviation in the region grows so should recruitment, “ and the most likely scenario is that airlines in the Middle East region will need to train an average of 2,458 pilots a year up till 2030 while the industry is only able to train 860 pilots a year.”

Read: 1.2m Middle East travellers head to Turkey in H1

Air travel and GDP

The Industry High Level Group (IHLG), ICAO said in a 2017 report that the Middle East region continued to strengthen its central location as a travel hub.

“The region now ranks third in international passenger traffic, having overtaken North America since 2012. And air transport supports 2.4 million jobs and contributes $36.8 bn as a direct impact to GDP in the Middle East,” said IHLG.

The report analysed individual economic sectors that aviation impacts, starting with creating a $41.5bn supply chain business, in which the salaries earned add $19.2bn to consumption.

“Direct, indirect and induced, respectively, aviation contributes $97 billion to the GDP in the Middle East.”