Khmer Times’ Sok Chan discusses the aviation sector in Cambodia with Captain Khan Vanna, the chief pilot and crew control manager at Cambodia Angkor Air (CAA), the kingdom’s national flag carrier.
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KT: We understand CAA has just hired four young Cambodian pilots who have recently obtained their commercial licenses after undergoing training courses in Vietnam and the United States. When are these young new recruits due to start flying?
Captain Vanna: Yes, they have officially joined our airline. But before they start operating our aircraft, they need to do more training. I do believe with their preparation and their desire to learn, plus the advice and mentoring they will receive from more experienced pilots working at CAA, this new generation of pilots will shine.
KT: What does CAA look for in new pilots? How much is the airline’s pilot training course and how many years does it take?
Captain Vanna: First, they must have finished high school. They must also show a certain level of English proficiency by being able to write at least 500 words. They will also be tested for general knowledge and knowledge in health sciences. If they meet this criteria, we will grant them an interview.
Training takes about two years. First, students are sent to Vietnam for Viet Flight Training, a theoretical course on the bases of aviation that lasts six months. Following this training, they go to the US for practical training. For a year and a half, they learn to control a small plane with two people and earn the multi-crew cooperation (MCC) certificate. Students spend about $120,000 for these two courses combined, not accounting for food and accommodation. Our four new recruits also had to make a deposit of $28,000 because CAA will send them to Singapore for six months to learn to fly the Airbus 320. Upon return, they will join us at CAA and continue their training with our aircraft.
KT: How would you evaluate the human capital already available in Cambodia’s aviation industry?
Captain Vanna: We are currently facing a shortage of specialised workforce in the field. CAA, for example, has had to hire pilots and co-pilots from Vietnam. Presently, we only have eight local pilots (not including the four new recruits), with the rest of our crew coming from outside our borders.
There is a tangible need to form more Cambodian pilots.
Right now, the country only has 20 local pilots and most of them work for foreign airlines from India, Vietnam, Malaysia or Thailand, where employee incentives are generally higher than what Cambodian airlines can offer.
KT: What is the greatest challenge trainees encounter during the aviation course?
Captain Vanna: The biggest problem tends to be language and health knowledge. If students can overcome these sections of the application process, they will probably succeed in their training. Six candidates were selected in 2015, with two of them failing for not having the necessary language capabilities. Being a proficient communicator is very important for pilots.
KT: Let’s go back to the skills gap in the industry. How could more students be encouraged to become pilots?
Captain Vanna: Well, first of all, allow me to clarify that the aviation sector in the kingdom has experienced tremendous growth in the last 20 years, including a significant rise in pilot wages.
Twenty years ago, a pilot in the kingdom was making around $1,200 a month, but now they can earn three times that amount. Our four new recruits will earn $6,000 a month, and when promoted to captain after four years, they will be earning $9,500 to $12,000. This applies to both local and foreign pilots in Cambodia.
Our collaboration with Viet Flight, which was just a pilot programme in the beginning, is now being extended because it has been very successful. We will start conducting events with this Vietnamese company to reach out to schools and universities and spread information among students.
I hope this will attract more young talent into the industry.
KT: How many more pilots does CAA need to hire in the near future?
Captain Vanna: Each plane has an eight-person crew, which includes one pilot and one co-pilot. At the moment, what we are lacking the most are pilots. We don’t even have enough homegrown talent for a single aircraft, so we need to hire foreign pilots. In the next five years, we plan to expand our fleet, and we foresee we will need an extra 60 pilots.
KT: Does CAA offer any grants or scholarships to help students finance their training?
Captain Vanna: Sadly, we do not. Despite being the country’s flag carrier, CAA is still a private company and we cannot afford to give our trainees this sort of funding opportunities, at least for the time being.
KT: The country’s first civil aviation training centre was launched in March this year with financial backing from South Korea. The centre is scheduled to receive 274 trainees, who will be partaking in some 14 different courses. How is the new centre coming along?
Captain Vanna: While equipped to train air traffic controllers, unfortunately the centre presently lacks the capacity to train pilots.
The centre is also suffering from a shortage of trainers, since they are very expensive.
We are currently working on finding ways to conduct theoretical knowledge training courses on site, while contacting airlines to help us with practical training.
Despite these shortcomings, I would definitely say we are on the right track.
KT: The government aims to attract seven million tourists by 2020. Would you say this is a realistic goal?
Captain Vanna: I can definitely foresee an increase in the number of local airlines in the next few years, particularly after the government enacts the Asean Open Skies policy.
With this in mind, I believe the goal of receiving seven million visitors is not far-fetched.