- Airlines in the United States don’t have enough pilots to handle the post-pandemic travel rebound.
- South Africa’s in a different position, with the recent closure of some domestic airlines putting pilots out of work.
- This combination has put more South African pilots in America’s skies, in a trend that doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
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South African pilots are finding new opportunities in the United States, where a severe shortage has airlines canvassing for imported talent.
The global aviation industry is still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, which halted international, grounded entire fleets, and led airlines to downsize their staffing requirements.
Around 400,000 airline workers had been fired, furloughed, or told their jobs were in jeopardy within the first year of the pandemic, according to Bloomberg. By the end of 2021, passenger airlines in the US had shed another 10,000 employees.
Since most travel restrictions were lifted earlier this year, flights are filling up again, at a rapid rate which has caught many airlines off-guard. Airlines, especially in the US, have struggled to fill the gap left by mass retrenchments made during the height of the pandemic.
Major US airlines have cancelled thousands of flights this year because of staff shortages. These shortages were looming even before the pandemic, with an ageing workforce facing mandatory retirement and fewer pilots passing through the military. Covid-19 just exacerbated the crisis, with airlines, desperate to cut overheads, offering attractive early retirement and buyout packages.
South Africa’s aviation sector has also been pummelled by the pandemic.
The country’s flag carrier, South African Airways (SAA), re-emerged from its business rescue process and the worst of the pandemic as a much leaner carrier. The number of pilots at SAA was cut by more than 80% by the time it resurfaced, and the carrier’s future remains uncertain.
Other local carriers couldn’t survive the pandemic. Low-cost airline Mango hasn’t flown in more than a year, with serious questions around whether it will ever return to the sky. SA Express, which has been grounded since the onset of the pandemic, was placed in final liquidation in September.
The biggest blow to the industry came with Comair’s collapse. The operator of Kulula.com and local British Airways flights, already facing financial difficulty prior to the pandemic, was placed in provisional liquidation in June, cutting 40% of South Africa’s domestic seat capacity.
The closure of South Africa’s domestic carriers has led to out-of-work pilots, who are looking to re-enter the industry, but with remaining carriers, although steadily increasing capacity, unable to absorb all the unemployed. That’s caused many to look overseas, particularly to the US, where pilots are in high demand.
“There are many exceptional pilots in South Africa right now who are looking beyond our borders to find employment,” said Stefano Migliore, managing partner of the South African office of multinational law firm Harvey Law Group (HLG), which is actively assisting pilots in getting jobs abroad through the US National Interest Waiver (NIW) programme.
The NIW visa, based on merit and designed to find pilots who meet exceptional ability criteria, grants access to an unconditional green card with permanent residency status for 10 years, which includes dependents. It also has flexible education requirements, so pilots who don’t have degrees or diplomas can still be eligible.
In the past 12 months alone, HLG has signed 33 South African pilots under processing for work in the US.
Obtaining an NIW visa is a 12 to 18 months process that requires careful application, noted HLG.
“Pilots often don’t recognise the aspects of their professional history and training that would be considered above average by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. We do,” said Migliore, adding that HLG-led applications have much shorter approval times, between four to five months.
“We know the process very well and how to interpret the US requirements to create a winning application.”
This exodus of South African pilots was highlighted by transport minister Fikile Mbalula in 2021, before the collapse of Comair left many more unemployed and looking for work.
“In our case, we have seen many of our well-trained and experienced aviators being lured away from South Africa to jobs and opportunities in countries that are offering much better remuneration,” said Mbalula.
“The aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak will only serve to intensify the competition for limited scarce and critical skills. It is critical, therefore, to plan ahead for such a reality, as this may compromise our country’s sterling record in relation to upholding civil aviation safety and security.”
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