Inside the UAE's Dh600,000 pilot training course
'There were some traditional views from captains who said that men were stronger physically and mentally - but that just isn’t true', says trainee Jolene Xuan
With more than 10,000 annual inquiries and 250 applicants, but just 80 available slots in the ground school pilot course, the only way is up for Alpha Aviation Academy.
Instructors at the Sharjah flight school are working around the clock to keep up with demand from new recruits who want to study for a career in aviation.
Yet despite the demand, the numbers of women signing up to become pilots has been desperately low — this is slowly starting to change.
Jolene Chuah Xuan, 28, from Malaysia, stepped through the cabin and into the flight deck, switching her career from cabin crew to pilot.
Within two years, Jolene could be sat at the controls of a commercial jet with Air Arabia, accumulating the 1,500 flying hours needed to become a first officer.
“It wasn’t easy to make that switch as it is such a male dominated industry,” she said.
“I had to go into the cockpit regularly with my [previous] job with Emirates, so it was useful to speak to pilots and get advice on how to do what they were doing.
“There were some traditional views from captains who said it wasn’t a good idea, and that men were stronger physically and mentally but that just isn’t true.
“These views put me off at first, but I realised I had to weigh up the pros and cons of choosing a career in that environment. Most crew members have been very encouraging.”
The number of female enrolments in the multi-crew pilot licence training programme at AAA doubled in the first six months of this year compared to the first half of 2017.
There are around three women in every class of 14 students, with 24 female recruits from 14 countries currently in training. AAA has a partnership with Air Arabia that is helping both businesses to grow.
Globally, the Alpha Aviation Group has more than 500 student pilots, with the company investing heavily to keep up with demand.
A purpose-built training facility in the Philippines will house three advanced flight simulators replicating the Airbus A320 and A330, taking the number at the academy’s disposal to six.
At just 18, Canadian trainee Lina Aziz is one of the youngest recruits.
With an Egyptian family, Lina hopes to follow the path of her father — a commercial pilot with Air Arabia who inspired her to pursue an aviation career.
“I first had an interest in flying when I was 15,” she said.
“I told my dad I wanted to fly, and he took me to a flying school in Canada where I did 15 hours or so in the air.
“I loved it and decided there is nothing else I want to do with my life.”
Lina moved to Dubai two years ago to finish her schooling, and is now enrolled in the aviation training programme.
Like her female classmates, she’s had a mixed response from men to her choice of career.
“My parents pushed me through it, and it was nice to have that support in such a male dominated industry,” she said.
“I’ve been doing take off and landings with a training pilot who stalls the aircraft and then passes me the controls. It was a bit intimidating at first, but I love it.
“I’ve always liked crazy adventures, and we do rolls and things in a Cessna [aircraft] so it’s exciting.”
Training doesn’t come cheap — courses cost up to Dh595,000. But the industry is growing and airlines are starting up across Asia and the Far East.
The global industry is facing a pilot supply and demand crisis, with a shortage of pilots potentially grounding aircraft and costing airlines huge sums in lost revenue.
Since 1987, there has been a huge increase in demand for air travel, although the US Federal Aviation Administration said the number of pilots has decreased there by 30 per cent since then.
Added to a forecast from the International Air Transport Association that air travel is set to double in the next 20 years, pilots will continue to be in demand.
Students can enrol in AAA programmes at 17, with the youngest progressing to become captain at Air Arabia at just 25.
Ground school instructor Sandra Lira, from Portugal, has been flying for more than a decade. She hopes more women will progress to the cockpit, increasing the average 3 per cent of pilots being female will increase.
“Slowly we are seeing more female pilots in classes,” she said.
“There is a social stigma, as many see this as a man’s job. I’ve been a pilot for ten years and I’ve felt it since the beginning.
“You can tell people question if we can do the job, but that is changing.
“Men know we can now do whatever they can do, and the way women are being treated in the industry is changing. There is more respect now for us than ten years ago.”
Updated: August 5, 2018 09:28 AM