Flying Schools — [Sir Robert Syms in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:25 pm on 12 September 2023.

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Photo of Mike Kane Mike Kane Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:25, 12 September 2023

I thank the Minister for his support on that.

The report highlights the fact that the lack of diversity and the barriers to access are something we all agree on. This is in no way data, but in my capacity as shadow Aviation Minister I attend many events and conferences, and I am still surprised at the lack of diversity in the industry. I get the irony of somebody who looks like me saying that.

To return to the collapse of the two flight schools, the amounts owed to the individual students affected is about £4 million, with an average individual loss per student of some £90,000. That money is unlikely ever to be recovered, as some flight schools do not take payment by credit card—as has been pointed out—so the consumer protections afforded by that method of payment have not been possible. In addition to that, the students are unsecured creditors, so there is no legal requirement for them to be repaid the money—morally, however, that is another issue.

In the decade since 2007, the average cost of initial pilot training in the UK increased by about 54%. Various academic and industry studies undertaken on pilot recruitment have noted that of the thousands of potential pilots who start flight training every year, about 80% leave. The failure to fund tuition fully is cited as a major reason for the drop-out rate.

Research commissioned by the Department for Transport showed that increasingly dynamic market conditions in the light of covid-19 meant:

“Training organisations and airlines suffered financially from lack of operation during the pandemic and lockdowns”.

There is little doubt that being unable to operate would impact on such businesses. For example, Lufthansa Aviation Training suspended its training from the beginning of the pandemic. Interestingly, Lufthansa was able to offer all its 850 students full refunds. I wonder whether the chaos in the sector and the refusal by the Government to offer a sector-specific deal might have added to the knock-on effects we see now.

The heavy reliance on self-funding creates barriers to entry to the pilot profession, disproportionately affecting some demographic groups more than others. Only 6% of pilots worldwide are women, and just 4% are from BAME communities. How can that be? I would be interested to find out the figures for children of a traditional working-class background who cannot rely on the bank of mum and dad. Kids like me ruled out ever becoming a pilot, because there was not, and clearly still is not, a route for working-class children and children with no access to credit who were unwilling or unable to go into debt to fund the training. If I may, I will quote Baroness Vere again: back in 2019, she said that

“social mobility is a fundamental right and it should not be that some people are blocked out of entire careers just because they don’t have the ‘Bank of Mum &

The cost of learning to fly not only plays a key role in limiting the pool of talent that the profession can draw on, but hampers the diversity of the pilot community. There was an attempt to address diversity in the pilot workforce with the creation of a first officer apprenticeship, which is a level 6 qualification that involves training as a co-pilot over a two-year period. Although the scheme is welcome, it is flawed by its very design. Industry sources have said that the £27,000 funding cap is not sufficient to cover flight training. Furthermore, apprentices cannot be asked to take on debt to supplement their training, which puts the onus on the airlines. There are restrictions on bonding apprentices to training providers, but airlines are likely to be unwilling to invest sufficient sums of money in a person who might leave immediately on qualifying. Almost by design, the scheme is flawed.

Moreover, there is a concern that the cost of training to secure a pilot’s licence in the UK may begin to put UK airlines at a competitive disadvantage relative to counterparts in the European Union, where pilot training is less expensive. Other changes have an impact on that situation: since the UK exited the EU, potential non-UK candidates now require settled status to live and work in the UK. In addition, those undergoing pilot training in the UK will be required to sit additional exams to get additional licence approval, which has additional cost and time implications for students. Taking those matters into consideration, there is a real concern that trainees will opt out of a UK licence and fly on an EU licence only, which will significantly reduce the pool of pilots available here. A 2020 study shows that the emerging shortage of qualified pilots is a high priority for airlines. Respondents to the flight operations survey noted upcoming pilot shortages as a top five focus, and 22% said it was their leading focus.

The collapse of the schools only serves to highlight a number of issues in flight schools and wider issues with pilot training: flight schools’ operating models, funding for aspiring pilots, lack of diversity in the workforce and the complexity of the first officer apprenticeship scheme, which by its own construction and in its current format is destined to fail. There is much to be done to ensure that the job of a pilot is open to all, not just to those with a well-resourced bank of mum and dad. I look forward to the Government’s acting on the recommendations of their own report, “Options for addressing the cost of pilot training”, and ensuring a pipeline of talent from all demographics.