Another blow for South Africa’s airline industry

 ·3 Oct 2022

US airlines are looking to scoop up skilled South African pilots as the local industry sees half its domestic airlines shut down and a significant reduction in capacity in the national carrier, SAA.

Stefano Migliore, a managing partner at the multinational law firm Harvey Law Group, said that pent-up demand and a shortage of pilots in the states presents an opportunity for skilled pilots to make the jump to the US.

Currently, the US is welcoming pilots from across the globe, he said.

According to the law group, if used correctly, the US National Interest Waiver (NIW) program could be used by pilots to access an unconditional green card that offers permanent residency status for ten years for the green cardholder and their dependents.

The NIW visa is based on merit; hence, even pilots without degrees or diplomas can still be eligible, said Migliore. Unlike other visas, pilots on this program are not dependent on a prior job offer and can live and work anywhere they like in the US once they obtain access, he said.

The NIW program dispenses with the usual requirements of a job offer and the ability to demonstrate that applicants are not taking jobs that Americans could fill, Migliore added.

According to Migliore, pilots on the program need to meet only three of the usual seven immigration criteria. They include:

  • Recognition of achievements and significant contributions to the industry,
  • Evidence of special or noteworthy training and/or experience, and
  • A minimum of 10 years of full-time experience as a pilot.

“As reported by management consultancy firm Oliver Wyman, securing a pipeline of new pilots has been a primary concern for airlines worldwide over the past few years. Their poll of flight operations leaders in 2019 highlighted that a shortage of qualified pilots was a critical risk to the industry.”

“In the US, the causes for this shortage include an ageing workforce facing mandatory retirement and not being replaced by younger pilots, often due to the cost of training and other barriers to entry. There are also fewer military pilots moving into commercial airlines.”

South Africa at risk

Transport minister Fikile Mbalula warned in 2021 that South Africa is at high risk of losing skills in its aviation sector to markets overseas, saying that global demand for trained and experienced pilots – combined with much more lucrative pay packages – would likely draw grounded pilots to more competitive markets.

Mbalula said at the time that the government and local industry need to work to protect the skills and keep the aviation sector alive. A year later, the industry was hit with high-profile liquidations, in a near worst-case scenario for the sector.

Airlines closed en masse over the last year, with only four of the eight domestic airlines that were operating in the nation prior to Covid-19 still in business: FlySafair, Lift, CemAir, and Airlink.

Other airlines like SA Express, Kulula, British Airways, and Mango have all been grounded or shut down, significantly reducing the amount of available space in the skies.

As a result of Comair’s liquidation, 40% of South Africa’s total flight capacity was reduced by practically half. The liquidation of SA Express in September added further stress to the market.

While state-owned airline Mango is still undergoing a business rescue process, its planes have been grounded. South African Airways, meanwhile, has significantly reduced its scope and lost access to a large number of routes in the process.

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