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UniSA aviation investment banks on pilot demand taking off

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The University of South Australia is set to acquire its second hi-tech flight simulator enabling them to train students in Airbus A320 cockpits, amid confidence that entry-level pilots can help the embattled aviation industry tackle a looming skills shortage.

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UniSA announced today its purchase of an A320 simulator from New Zealand company PacSim, with delivery to its Mawson Lakes campus expected by mid-2022.

It complements the university’s existing Boeing 737 simulator bought from the same company in 2017.

Around 100 third-year aviation students train in the simulator each year, the university says.

Bachelor of Aviation program director Dr Steve Leib said the university recognised the 737 simulator’s popularity as a training tool in making its latest investment.

“These are two of the most popular aircraft that are flown worldwide,” he said.

“Students are not going to walk directly out of this program into aircraft like that, this is more mid- to late-career, but … these systems are foundational across tons of large aircraft.

“To have that exposure and that kind of variation of different presentation of cockpit systems … serves them beyond just these two aircraft – it’s useful for a whole variety of different aeroplanes.”

There are more than 9300 Airbus A320s in service around the world. The narrow-bodied aircraft is the primary workhorse of Jetstar’s domestic fleet.

Leib said the new A320 simulator would additionally be used for research purposes and may incorporate virtual and augmented reality into pilot training.

He said an industry partner had already reached out to the university with a view to using the new simulator for recurrent training of their pilot workforce.

Recurrent training tests pilots in a range of situations, such as engine failure, and is a requirement for maintaining a pilot license.

UniSA’s investment in their aviation program comes as the industry faces a looming skills shortage due to a spate of early pilot retirements and redundancies brought on by the pandemic.

In October 2020, international passenger travel in Australia dropped by more than 98 per cent, according to federal government statistics, with Virgin Australia going bankrupt in April that year and Qantas grounding its entire international fleet in June.

The country’s peak pilot body, the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, estimated in September 2021 that up to 25 per cent of its 5500 pilot members are “without recent experience that is required to maintain their license”.

A partial survey of the federation’s members also revealed around 57 per cent of their pilots had been stood down during the pandemic while 23 per cent were made redundant.

An outlook report from Boeing in 2021 also forecasted that international aviation would need an additional 600,000 pilots by 2040.

Leib said the top commercial airlines would be able to replenish their pilot workforce by drawing from their subsidiaries, but the need for skills would be felt “down the hierarchy”.

He said the core demand for entry-level pilots in Australia was likely to come from three sectors: charter and tourism companies, regional carriers and flight instruction.

“There are good opportunities for entry-level positions because a lot of people that left the industry are unlikely to come back,” he said.

“Overall, I’m pretty optimistic for the students that are just getting into this now, because three years later at the other end when the industry has the need for these positions, they’re generally not going to wait for people to undertake 18 months of flight training.”

Leib said UniSA’s simulator purchase also came at a time when airlines were finding more value in the hi-tech training product, given the sharp drop in real-world flying hours for pilots.

“What airlines have detected is there are other aspects of ‘staying sharp’ that are just normally maintained by virtue of flying regularly,” he said.

“I think they found great value in recurrent training that’s sort of in an informal sense of getting people in simulators to fly regularly just to keep up with their muscle memory, awareness, communication.

“I think that’s proving to be more valuable, especially as pilots during the height of the pandemic … were being stood down, a lot of pilots themselves would put their hand up to go into simulators in their own time just to maintain that.”

Leib said the outlook for Australia’s aviation industry was improving despite the arrival of Omicron but said it was still unclear when the sector would be completely back on its feet.

“With Australia opening borders and travel kind of resuming worldwide, there’s already been a lot of hiring abroad,” he said.

“In fact, some of our former students are even getting hired in the US to go fly over there because pilot shortages are sort of the talk of the industry right now.

“There are a lot of data points that indicate the recovery – the timeline for that is anybody’s guess.”

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