Only way is up for pilot training centre
MIKE Edgeworth set up the Pilot Training College just months after the 9/11 attacks plunged global aviation into a crisis, so it's little surprise that he's taking the latest recession more in his stride than the average businessman.
"Aviation has always tended to move in cycles," he says. "This downturn is in line with trends in aviation and our expectation is that in a two-year timeframe we're going to see an upturn again."
This has been a hell of a cycle by anyone's standards, with the world's airlines believed to have lost more than $9bn (€6.6bn) last year, but Edgeworth's own business has managed to avoid the worst of the industry's woes.
Founded in 2002, the Pilot Training College (PTC) drove turnover of €11m at its holding company in 2008 and expects to achieve revenue of €15m this year, making it Europe's third-largest commercial flight school.
PTC has also remained profitable throughout the downturn, with earnings "heading in the right direction".
The company is planning for its future with a €10m 'aviation centre for excellence' that it hopes to build in Waterford later this year.
Edgeworth admits the recession has triggered some fall-off in 'self-improver' pilots -- trainees with no airline affiliation who have to rely on their own resources to raise the €90,000 to €130,000 needed to become a commercial pilot.
But PTC has moved swiftly to fill that gap by doing deals with airlines, including regional carrier Fly Be and Kajakaztan's Air Astana, both of which use PTC to train pilots destined for their cockpits.
The model allows airlines to screen pilots before they begin training, build a relationship with them while they're training and then channel them into an airline-specific 'pilot pool' once they've finished.
Some airlines pay for some or all of the training, but Edgeworth says financial support isn't a must for the model to work.
The PTC boss has spent the past fortnight in the Middle East, selling the airlines model to carriers there, and says he is "very confident" of doing deals with them that will mark a step-change in PTC's 200-pilots-a-year operation.
"There are 10 airlines in the Middle East to whom we've been talking and they're predicting an average of 200 new entrants for the foreseeable future. That's 2,000 pilots per annum that are going to need training," says Edgeworth.
"No matter what we do, we're not going to be able to satisfy all that demand, but we certainly do have the ability to expand our business significantly by obtaining new contracts out here."
PTC's airline love-bombing extends to the Far East as well, where Edgeworth says the college is on a shortlist for a contract.
All the airlines are being sold the same story -- the aviation industry may be in crisis now but it will recover, and when it does, airlines must be ready for the upturn.
"The situation has always arisen where there's no demand for pilots and then very suddenly the tide turns and you find the pool of available pilot talent has drawn up," says Edgeworth.
"We're telling airlines they need to look at creating their own pilot pools -- they need to be looking not just at the demand next week, but at what it will be in two years' time."
If the Middle East or Far East deals come off, Edgeworth thinks PTC could double its pilot numbers to 400 in a relatively short space of time -- initially training new recruits in Waterford and Florida, where the weather makes flying conditions more amenable to trainees, and eventually setting up operations in the Middle East itself.
PTC's global expansion was made possible by the liberalisation of international flight-training rules, which has steadily increased the number of territories from which PTC can train pilots and which may pay further dividends over the coming years.
While the recession has made the airline model PTC's 'default' focus over the coming years, the college has also been pushing hard to drive 'self-improvers' into its courses.
Against the recessionary backdrop, PTC last year launched a degree course in association with Waterford's Institute of Technology, which offers students a flight qualification and a business degree -- improving their job prospects in this difficult market and allowing the more ambitious to target the 'Willie Walshe route' of starting life as a pilot and ending up in charge of one of the world's biggest airlines.
For those who baulk at the course fees, PTC has introduced a speeded up 'integrated' course, which can save students about 10pc on PTC's usual tariffs.
The college also continues to drive home the long-term demand for pilots.
Edgeworth believes there'll be a global demand for 300,000 new airline pilots between now and 2026 -- a prediction that's music to the ears of the masses who flood to careers expos.
PTC's recent history has also seen the firm cut about 20pc from its cost line over the last two years, as well as increasing the use of flight simulators, which are far cheaper than real-life flying.
Edgeworth sees simulators as having the potential to change the flight-training game enormously by letting trainee pilots hone their skills on aircraft similar to the ones they'll actually be flying for airlines, rather than on small twin-engine prop planes.
New technology is likely to play a central role in PTC's Waterford 'centre for excellence', although Edgeworth is tight-lipped on the venture's details, beyond stressing that funding is in place and the project will "hopefully come to fruition later this year".
He added: "Our philosophy has always been to develop Ireland and Waterford into a very significant centre for aviation-relative activity.
"The intention is to retain the business, continue to build it and follow that through."