Australia's third biggest airline has accused Qantas and Virgin of 'plundering' its pilots to deal with chronic shortages

suppliedRegional Express.

A global pilot shortage has led Australia’s third largest airline, Regional Express (Rex), to accuse its major rivals of “rapacious plundering” of its staff in a bid to stay in the air.

In an open letter to its regional customers today, Rex Chief Operating Officer Neville Howell says regional aviation is “the hardest hit as many local and international airlines actively poach pilots”, accusing Qantas and Virgin Australia of targeting pilots it has trained.

Howell accuses Virgin Australia and Qantas of collectively recruiting 56% of Rex’s captains over the last two years, and 17% of its first officers over the same period. Those figures represent 78 captains and 21 FOs.

“These two airlines are causing widespread chaos and disruptions to regional air travel by their selfish and irresponsible actions,” he says.

The ASX-listed airline, which also operates Pel-Air and AirLink, and has more than 90 planes, operating to around 60 destinations in all states, set up a $30 million pilot training academy in Wagga Wagga 10 years ago when it was faced with an earlier pilot shortage that forced it to cut services.

Howell says it’s now trained 220 cadets for Rex and 71% of the airline’s First Officer ranks and 29% of its Captains are former AAPA cadets.

“Whilst Rex’s initiative is successful in responding to natural attrition rates, it is not enough to stave off Qantas and Virgin Australia’s rapacious plundering of Rex’s pilot pool instead of using their not inconsiderable resources to train their own pilots,” he said.

As a result, the airline is lacking “its usual contingent of stand-by pilots” which means sudden illness made cause light cancellations or re-routing. The airline is also reviewing its network and schedules to “where possible to conserve resources”.

Howell says that while Rex’s cancellation rate is consistently lower than the rest of the Australian industry – and at 1.29%, around half the rate for QantasLink (2.39%) and Virgin Australia Regional (2.74%) – the airline “will redouble our efforts in pursuing all options for pilot recruitment, including overseas recruitment”.

Pilot shortages have become a major issue for all airlines with QantasLink forced to cut services last year as its cancellation rates doubled to around 500 flights (4.7%) last October.

That figure was almost half of all domestic airline cancellations.

Cancelled flights also played a part in the airline’s public fight with Canberra airport over the last 12 months.

In February CEO Alan Joyce announced plans for a $20 million Qantas Group Pilot Academy, opening in 2019.

The academy will initially train around 100 pilots annually, training cadets for direct entry into Qantas, Jetstar and QantasLink, and with the potential for up to 500 pilots a year on a fee for service basis. Last month Qantas announced a shortlist of the nine regional cities where it could be based.

Joyce says 12,500 aspiring pilots – 15% women – have registered an interest in the Academy amid estimates that the world will need more than 640,000 more pilots in the next 20 years.

Responding to the comments from Howell, a Qantas spokesperson said it was natural to see some movement between airlines from people seeking advancement.

“No Australian airline invests more in training pilots than the Qantas Group and we’ve been doing that for almost 100 years,” they said.

Virgin Australia said it “strongly rejects any suggestions of impacting regional air service through our pilot recruitment”.

A company spokesperson said 80% of the airline’s current pilots have been with Virgin Australia for more than five years.

“We have a comprehensive pilot recruitment and training process which includes running our own Virgin Australia Cadetship program in partnership with Flight Training Adelaide and working with a number of Australian universities to provide input into their pilot training programs,” they said.

“Our more experienced pilots join us as part of their career progression and to build their expertise in flying different aircraft to new routes.”

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