Flying Schools — [Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:58 pm on 12 September 2023.

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Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 2:58, 12 September 2023

I thank Tim Loughton for raising this matter and putting on the record so skilfully the perplexing and, in many respects, heartbreaking saga that students are going through.

Although this is not a registered interest, I declare that my son is a trainee pilot. Thankfully he is not in one of the schools that have been mentioned in this debate. He has nearly completed his training. He is currently in the United States of America finishing his night school training for jet aircraft and hopes sometime next year to be a pilot flying the skies around the United Kingdom and Europe. I wish him all the best, because I am immensely proud of him for the job that he has done.

Considering the points that have been raised in the debate, I feel for the parents and the students. The sagas described by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham are personal lives; they are the stories of young kids who dared to dream, who wanted to get their jet licence, who wanted that as their career, and whose mothers and fathers sacrificed everything for them. We heard about parents putting houses on the line and remortgaging to facilitate that for their children, because they believed in them, and then that being cruelly snatched from them. There is no chance that they will get to start again, get a refund, or get picked up and taken on by another school. Their stories are heartbreaking.

I know that the Minister is a passionate man and that he will care about those individual stories. They are the lives of young people. They are the future of our nation’s aviation sector. If we do not put this right, we will suffer consequences down the line—and very quickly. One airline has something like 500 pilot vacancies over the next two years. Those must be filled. Anyone who has recently been at any of our local airports will know of the delays and the lack of crew availability, and the problems that those things cause. We need to fix that now, because we are an island nation that relies on aviation not just for passenger travel but for cargo travel and postal access. As a nation that relies on aviation, we will feel the consequences if the matter is not fixed immediately.

Pilots are necessary to our economy, and the training pipeline put in place by a number of these schools is crucial for economic growth and development. The smaller airfields across the United Kingdom where a number of these pilots initially trained will also feel the impact and could be damaged. A number of private and smaller airfields across Northern Ireland, which have been the incubator for young pilots, are at risk, and it is the same for smaller airlines and airfields across the rest of the United Kingdom.

A number of things need to be done, but it is important to reiterate this point. As a parent who had to pay the deposit for my kid’s training, I could not pay it on a credit card. There was zero protection. It was an eye-watering amount: the first deposit was just shy of £15,000, and in some instances deposits are not refundable. People are really staking a lot on these companies. I remember going around the banks with my son and saying, “Can this young lad get a loan? I believe in him.” No—he was not getting a loan for a pilot’s licence. I took him to inquire about whether he could get a student grant. He is a student—he is doing a degree alongside his pilot’s licence—but no, he could not have a student grant at all, for any part of it. Mummy and daddy would have to pay for that. It is a big decision when you put your house on the line and say, “I’ll remortgage the house to get that person the career that they need.”

As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham indicated, when training is cruelly snatched from kids in circumstances like this, it not only wrecks their lives, dreams, hopes and aspirations, but it devastates their parents. The fact that the money paid in for the student cannot be protected needs to be fixed. There are no refunds for an aviation course after the first £10,000. As I said, the initial payments are eye-watering—and those are just the fees. My son trained at Gatwick for the first nine months, so he had to live in London. He had to pay fees, living costs and all the rest of it. Other kids across the United Kingdom are faced with the same thing: they have to come down to Gatwick or one of the other big airports, live near it and pay their fees and living costs. They get zero support, whereas other students get reduced rates, railcards and all sorts of other things. Trainee pilots do not benefit from any of that, and they have to pay for food and board on top of all those fees. Banks will not give a loan without an asset being put up.

A number of asks have been outlined, but I want to ask the Government to look at incorporating trainee pilots into the student loan system, so that they can get a loan that is paid off more easily. They will move into a bracket whereby they are able to pay off such loans, so they should be regarded as worth backing. They will probably be able to pay off the loans more quickly than students who do an arts degree. Trainee pilots do a necessary qualification that takes them into a sector that the economy actually needs. Something should be put in place to allow the Government to say that the student loan system can be used for trainee pilots. That is a reasonable ask, and it is something the Government should look at.

I agree that the civil aviation sector must do much more. After all, all pilots are trained initially by civil aviation, and it is civil aviation that they benefit. Something must be done, not necessarily to step in and save flying schools that have become failed businesses, but to save the students, help them to progress in a much better way, and help them get what they are entitled to: a very expensive but very beneficial thing called a commercial pilot’s licence for jet aviation, which is essential for our economy. I appeal to the Minister to look at the points that were raised by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, to see whether there is some way we can help students who are directly affected by the flying school closures, and to look at the wider picture for aviation students going forward.