The Kingdom is boosting its civil aviation sector with the establishment of a flight school with a local airline to meet growth demands once air travel recovers
At 22, First Officer Reachta Lim is the youngest commercial pilot in Cambodia. He flies with the national flag carrier, Cambodia Angkor Air (Angkor Air), after starting in January 2020, just as Covid-19 cases began to rise in China.
Having earned his stripes when he was 19, Reachta said he enrolled in flight school just out of high school and was lucky to join Angkor Air before the pandemic engulfed the world.
To date, he has charted about 400 flying hours via flight school and his trips between China, Vietnam and Cambodia.
He is among 20 to 30 Cambodian commercial pilots in the country, with a fraction of them “nearing retirement”, and those who could afford to study overseas.
Over the years, a generational gap has become evident in the industry due to a supply shortage, seeing that the industry could not fill the vacancy fast enough.
Pilot training, in general, is considerably expensive and intense, making it an unlikely option even if interest among people is high.
The dwindling number of scholarships offered by overseas governments for pilot training because of its high tuition cost was also becoming a concern for the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA).
In 2019, SSCA director-general for technical services and operations Chan Vanna noted that Cambodia was “lacking 90 per cent” of the human resources necessary to serve a burgeoning civil aviation sector, where five locally-registered airlines operate.
By then, passenger traffic had grown to nearly 11 million in 2018, along with aircraft movements at 104,803, having risen 16 per cent from 2017.
Just before the pandemic, the sector was growing at 10 per cent annually since 2016, Captain Goh Chee Hong, director of training at Lanmei Airlines (Cambodia) Co Ltd said.
“We believe in a year or two, the aviation industry will continue to grow again at the rate [recorded] prior to the pandemic,” he opined.
When it started in 2017 with a grant of $10.1 million from the Korean International Cooperation Agency, SSCA’s Civil Aviation Training Centre (CATC) at the Phnom Penh International Airport hoped to enhance the skills of aviation staff, some 10,000 at that time, and train high school leavers.
To date, about 1,000 personnel have completed various courses such as air traffic control, dangerous goods, international air law, and aviation security, said Jennifer Meszaros, an international aviation consultant with Civil Aviation Cooperation Initiative (CACI) in Mekong-Lancang Countries.
Meszaros, also an instructor at CATC, noted that Cambodia has made “significant headway” towards boosting its aviation training offerings.
“Beyond in-house airline and airport programmes, CATC is home to a “state-of-the-art” air traffic control and radar simulator, baggage X-ray room and computer-based training classrooms,” she said.
But pilot training and aircraft maintenance engineering were largely absent, owing to inadequate expertise to train Cambodians, although the demand was compelling given the fast-expanding industry.
Often, the common and easy route for Cambodians to enrol in these courses is to go to Vietnam, Russia, the US or Philippines, either by funding themselves or via scholarships.
Two years ago, SSCA announced that it would jointly develop a pilot training and aircraft maintenance school with the local airline – Lanmei Training Centre (LTC) – to enable Cambodians, particularly those who are underprivileged to enrol in the courses.
The idea was to offer pilot training and aircraft maintenance courses at “comparatively low prices”.
As such, he urged Cambodians with “a lot of resources and personal wealth” to send their children overseas to pursue the course, so as to ensure sufficient seats for candidates from poorer households.
Dream to fly
“To become a pilot, one must have three things – money, [must be] medically fit and proficient in English,” said Reachta, who was inspired after watching documentaries on aviation, and trips to airports by his parents to look at planes as a child.
He explained that to qualify as a commercial pilot, one must have three basic licences, consisting of “private pilot licence”, “private pilot with instrument rating” and “commercial pilot licence”.
The basic training courses are done in small propeller aircrafts, however, students who want to fly a turbofan aircraft, must have “Type Rating”, similar to a driver’s licence, which allows them to fly commercial planes.
These three basic licences will cost $70,000 to $90,000 and students must have a minimum of 250 hours to qualify for type rating certification which, on its own, can cost between $20,000 and $40,000, excluding food and accommodation.
Upon completion, students can apply to work with an airline but with zero work experience, they must undergo a cadet program that could amount to around $90,000.
In addition, Cambodians who serve in local airlines must convert their foreign licence, acquired from the school they studied at, to a licence by SSCA, which “comes at a cost”.
“So, in total you would have to spend roughly $200,000 in order to become a full fledged pilot,” said Reachta, who studied at Epic Flight Academy and Aerostar Training Services in Florida, US. He is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Hospitality and Tourism at a local university in between his pilot job.
He acknowledged the challenges in the local industry, saying that “a lot of his friends” who are finishing their Type Rating are not able to land a job as their families cannot afford the final leg of their pilot course. This is the part where students need to convert their foreign licence to SSCA’s licence if they are hired by a local airline.
Regardless of the cost, the lure of the job remains enticing, especially for brothers Uddomkrissna and Udomsethavuth Chan, 32 and 30, respectively, whose parents supported them throughout their programme at Viet Flight Training in Ho Chi Minh, and Aviator College in Florida, US.
“It is difficult for parents to pay, and especially for our parents because they paid for me and my younger brother to study at the same time,” said Uddomkrissna, sharing that a total of $340,000 was spent.
“Flight school is considered expensive everywhere in the world, not just Cambodia. Most [students] who finish their training will [eventually] hold an approximately six-figure debt,” said the father of two, who has clocked 1,700 flying hours.
The brothers, both ranked as First Officer with Angkor Air, shared the same dream of becoming pilots, having been exposed as kids to toy planes, aviation books, flight simulator games and real aircrafts by their pilot father who at 57 is still flying, albeit with Vietnam Airlines.
The first and second World Wars had a significant impact on the evolution of civil aviation, including aviation training, said Meszaros.
“Historically, those who entered the field held a military background. As civil aviation grew, aviation companies, including airlines and airports created in-house training programs to build talent and workforce capacity. This is the norm today,” she said.
Pre-Covid, one of the biggest challenges facing the global aviation industry was the shortage of skilled professionals from commercial pilots and aircraft maintenance technicians to cabin crew and customer service agents.
This was contributed by ageing workforces, low salary and benefits packages, poor organisation and leadership cultures, insufficient investments, and increasing competition from other sectors, including information technology.
“Attracting, educating, and retaining the next generation of aviation professionals was not a Cambodia-specific challenge, but a global one. It still is,” Meszaros said.
In Cambodia, Lanmei’s entry into the training space would “fill critical gaps” in aviation training and education, including pilot and aircraft maintenance training and help build a sustainable pipeline of talent through human resource development and capacity-building.
Beyond this, she pointed out, the SSCA in cooperation with the Civil Aviation Flight University of China (CAFUC), Department of Civil Aviation, Laos, the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam, and the Vietnam Aviation Academy (VAA) recently launched an aviation scholarship program in three aeronautical technical domains – aircraft maintenance engineering, flight dispatch, and air traffic radar control – to support the specialised training requirements among technical officers in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
The scholarship program, made possible by the “generosity” of CAFUC, is expected to strengthen Cambodia’s technical workforce and support the conditions necessary to meet the increasing demands of a rapidly changing, highly regulated aviation industry.
“This programme will also enable positive, long-term benefits, allowing recipients to pass down critical knowledge and skills to the younger generation to meet future technical capability requirements,” she added.
Together, LTC and the scholarships boost SSCA’s objective to ensure that Cambodians are not deprived of a career in this field.
Added to that, Vanna reportedly said in 2019 that SSCA would look for jobs for LTC graduates and help them negotiate salaries and contracts.
He said graduates who become licensed pilots can expect a salary “in line with international standards” of the profession in Cambodia.
“[This could mean] an average starting salary of more than $3,000 [a month] that could rise to $5,000 after two years of service, with [the possibility of] further increment depending on their employment situation,” he said.
‘Timing is perfect’
Slightly delayed by Covid-19, LTC started enrolling students in March this year, said Lanmei Airlines CEO Captain Darren Chan.
The training centre, which shares the space with CATC, was set up to address the acute shortage of local talent in aviation, as 80 to 85 per cent are currently staffed by foreigners.
At the moment, any aircraft engineer coming into Cambodia comprise experienced engineers or fresh graduates overseas.
“Most pilots and engineers in Cambodia are foreigners. [It is] not sustainable relying only on foreign expertise in the long term. So, we decided to set up a flight school and a simulator centre for pilot training and a maintenance workshop to train engineers,” said Chan.
For Lanmei Airlines, the potential for the school is huge, he said, noting that “many had tried in the past but failed”.
“It's an oxymoron but the timing is perfect to set this up in the middle of a pandemic. The planes and simulators are cheaper, regulators have more time to focus and there are many parents who want to invest in [aviation] education locally and regionally,” Chan said.
This year, the training centre has 16 students enrolled for the 18-month multi-crew pilot licence course which includes Type Rating while its 20-month aircraft engineering programme has 13 students. Both the courses include two-year job guarantees.
In the near future, courses on ground handling and cabin crew training, as well as private pilot licence will come onboard.
Chan’s colleague Goh, general manager of the training centre, said the aircraft maintenance engineering course is more popular with local students due to its affordability, which is about $14,000.
He said the current batch of students will become the first locally-trained engineers who will start work in the industry in less than two years.
Pilot training is around $150,000 but Goh stressed that students graduate from the programme with Type Rating with an Airbus 320 and a two-year employment contract.
“This is usually not included in the commercial pilot licence training. So, when we add all these additional training to prep an airline pilot, our pricing is competitive,” he said.
Critical to future success
However, all of this is at an infancy stage. Cambodia Airports CEO Alain Brun, who remarked that he did not have adequate information to share a “solid view” on the school, nevertheless felt that it showed a rapid transformation of the aviation sector in Cambodia.
“It is with great interest that we’ll follow its future development,” he told The Post a few weeks ago.
In the midst, Cambodia is doing what is necessary to address challenges in the global aviation industry, that includes ramping up efforts to address setbacks that impact human resource development, capacity-building and innovation.
“Solutions include aviation outreach, full scholarships, paid internships, clear career pathways, on-the-job-training, attractive salary and benefit packages, and training partnerships between industry players and the education sector,” Meszaros said.
But going forward, a diverse, highly skilled, and resilient workforce is “critical” to Cambodia’s future success.
“Along with pilots, cabin crew and meteorologists, the sector will also require experts in data science, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, cloud computing and other technological domains.
“Reskilling workers to meet the demands of Industry 4.0 will become increasingly necessary to ensure safety, security and competitiveness,” she stressed.