As founder of Alpha Aviation Group, Bhanu Choudhrie has an informed and insightful perspective on the airline industry. He recently appeared on “Meet the Leader” to discuss the aviation industry’s response to the novel coronavirus with host Malcolm Gallagher. His comments were critical, expressive and hopeful at different times.
Before dissecting Bhanu Choudhrie’s comments specifically on COVID-19, it’s first important to establish a baseline of how the industry adapts (or sometimes doesn’t adapt) to change. This can be seen clearly in Alpha Aviation Group’s story, which itself is largely a tale of bringing innovative change to pilot training.
Bhanu Choudhrie and his team founded Alpha Aviation Group in order to more effectively and efficiently train pilots for flying with regional, budget airlines. These are smaller airlines that don’t have the resources of the major carriers to develop comprehensive in-house training programs, so they outsource much of the training process.
When Multi-Pilot Licensing (MPL) was initially approved by industry regulators, Alpha Aviation Group was one of the first training providers to implement an MPL program. The program used simulators much more than traditional training did, and it effectively reduced in-flight hours from 230 to just 70 hours. Such a significant reduction in flight time had multiple benefits:
- Pilots could train in just 18 to 24 months through an accelerated program, rather than over 5-plus years
- Training costs decreased substantially because less flight time was required
- Alpha Aviation Group was better able to meet budget airlines’ needs to have trained pilots precisely when they got new fleets
Additionally, the program maintained and perhaps even improved training safety standards. Whereas traditional pilot-training methods progress from small to large planes, simulators expose cadets to what they’ll actually see in an airline’s jet very early on in the training process. With airlines’ jets being so technologically advanced, becoming familiar with the systems on planes is more important now than it has ever been before.
Alpha Aviation Group has had to make substantial investments in simulators so that the company can offer condensed MPL licensing, but that investment has proven to be a wise decision. The company currently has 11 simulators, the most recent of which is an Airbus A320 2.0 that’s in the Philippines. More than 900 pilots in the Asia region have trained on these simulators, and others have trained in the United Arab Emirates. Currently, cadets from 40 different countries are going through Alpha Aviation’s program.
The Aviation Industry Has Historically Been Slow to Change
While the innovation that Alpha Aviation Group brought to pilot training was extremely helpful to pilots and budget airlines in emerging regions, the changes were long overdue in many ways.
Those traditional pilot-training methods that require 5-plus years to complete are patterned on processes that were created after World War II. In nearly 80 years, little advancement has been brought to pilot training — even though major technological advancements had come to the planes that airline pilots fly.
Of course, pilot training is far from an outlier within the industry. Across almost all aspects of the industry, regulators and companies are slow to change.
It’s against this backdrop that everyone in the industry found themselves faced with the COVID-19 pandemic has had to react.
Bhanu Choudhrie Praised the Immediate Leadership Decisions of Airlines
When Gallagher asked Bhanu Choudhrie about the immediate steps that airlines took when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Bhanu had only good things to say about the decisions that were made. “People will complain,” he said. “But…We have a lot of airlines who took the unprecedented steps early on to, to stop flying. I think that was a very good move.”
This praise wasn’t economically focused but instead, was based on the impact to public health. Bhanu specifically noticed that grounding planes helped address the pandemic’s spread. He justified the decision to ground planes, saying, “This will safeguard, I think, the transmission of COVID-19 globally.”
Criticized Governments’ Unequal Treatment of Airlines
When asked about the short-term treatment of airlines by governments, Bhanu was more critical of governments decisions. Specifically, he didn’t appreciate that big airlines – such as KLM and Air France – were propped up by government aid while smaller airlines didn’t receive assistance.
In Bhanu’s words, “But, we’ve seen the low-cost carriers suffering…It cannot be the largest get saved and the smallest is left to die. That is not a right approach. I think, if there is a program, the program should be extended to everybody.”
Expressed Hope for the Future of the Airline Industry
As he discussed the long-term future of the airline industry, Bhanu Choudhrie said that pre-COVID-19 projections would have to be tempered slightly. He remained largely positive, though.
One forecast from Boeing projected that the industry would need 500,000 pilots globally by 2034. Bhanu pointed out that this was a pre-COVID-19 forecast and that number probably will be adjusted slightly due to the pandemic’s lasting impact on air travel. Given the demographics of pilots and that many will be facing mandatory retirement in the coming years, however, Bhanu doesn’t think the need for new pilots will drop that dramatically.
At the same time, Bhanu did explain that Alpha Aviation Group and all companies in the airline industry will be revising their forecasts for post-COVID-19. “Post-COVID, I personally think…that there is going to be a re-look. There is going to be airlines re-looking at their numbers. But, I think they (airlines) will be very prudent in how they are planning their future.”
At another point in the interview, he made the same point with specific regard to flights. “We feel that airlines are going to have to reduce the number of flights. They’re going to have to relook at their fleet size and their costs when they do start flying again. And I think they would be taking this time right now, when no one is flying pretty much, to plan for that.”
COVID-19 Has Forced the Airline Industry to Change
For an industry that’s historically resistant to change, COVID-19 has forced many companies’ hands. From immediate steps to ground flights to long-term changes that will be implemented in the future, this pandemic will bring about many innovations at a speed that the industry has likely never seen before.
One particular area that Bhanu Choudhrie hopes to see change is pilot training. Alpha Aviation Group has been working with regulators to make training more accessible remotely in light of the pandemic, and hopefully, some of these changes will remain long-term. As Bhanu said, “I think regulators will see the merit of it and allow training providers like ourselves to continue this long term, which would greatly benefit the industry.”
Only time will tell whether that specific hope ultimately does prove true. All that’s known for now is that the industry is and will change rapidly – at times in good ways and at times making mistakes. If the industry comes together, though, those good changes can far outweigh the mistakes.