Airlines are grappling with a pilot shortage that has already caused carriers to cancel flights, and trim frequencies and longer-term expansion plans.

The problems have led carriers, including Qantas and American Airlines, to set up or plan their own flight training centres, while Chinese airlines have invested in several flying schools in Australia to guarantee a steady supply of pilots.

That comes amid burgeoning growth in airfreight and passenger demand with Boeing forecasting global airfreight growth of around 4.2% a year over the next 20 years, with stronger demand in Asia.

“Boeing estimates the world will need about 640,000 more pilots in the next 20 years, with 40% in the Asia Pacific region,” said Alan Joyce, chief executive of Qantas, after announcing plans earlier in the year for a flight training academy capable of training 500 pilots a year when it opens in around 2019.

American Airlines and United Airlines have teamed up with several US universities to encourage students to train as pilots, including providing financial help to cover training costs. Estimates show it can take two years and cost around US$135,000 for a student to obtain an airline transport pilot license.

The shortage of aircrew has already hit some airlines with Emirates and Ryanair cancelling flights and trimming frequencies due to a lack of flight crew.

“We’re a tad short in pilots,” said Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airlines, during a visit to Hamburg in April.

He said the carrier has a shortfall of around 150 pilots, which has resulted in a cut in the number of flights to destinations in the US during the forthcoming summer season.

Emirates inaugurated its Dubai flying training school last November to address the shortage. It expects to train about 170 cadets a year.

Chinese carriers such as China Eastern Airlines are investing in facilities, particularly in Australia.

China Eastern acquired a stake in the Australian subsidiary of CAE, one of the world’s largest flight training companies based in Oxford, England. China Eastern is now spending US$50 million expanding the CAE facilities at Melbourne’s Moorabbin airport to double the annual number of student pilots to 300.

Joyce said Chinese airlines were luring foreign pilots with extremely competitive salaries and benefits. Some pay packages can be double what Western airlines offer. Indian airlines have also been accused of poaching pilots from one another.

Online pilots’ forums such as the Professional Pilots Rumor Network (PPRUNE) are filled with comments from pilots asking about working conditions, salaries and benefits as airlines, including many from China and the rest of Asia, step up recruitment.

The current challenge in finding enough flight crew should not come as a surprise to those in the industry. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), warned of a looming crisis 11 years ago, and international pilots’ unions have voiced similar concerns.

While the aircrew shortage is partly due to the surge in air transport as carriers launch flights to new destinations and add frequencies, IATA and unions also point to other issues for exacerbating the problem.

These include the sheer cost of a would-be commercial airline pilot gaining an air transport license and the relatively poor pay and benefits.

One European budget carrier was forced to up its pilots pay in recent months after a surge in aircrew turnover while those that remained threatened a series of strikes and walk-outs over conditions. The airline said the pay increase would cost it around US$120 million a year.

Figures from the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which administers the licensing of pilots in Britain, points to a 31% decrease in the number of commercial licenses issued.

The European Cockpit Association, which represents national pilots’ unions in Europe, even goes so far as to say there is no shortage of pilots.

Instead, it said there is a large pool of pilots in various member states who are either unemployed or unable to find a flying job that provides a reasonable lifestyle.

“Figures from our national pilot associations indicate approximately an average 15% unemployment rate among pilots in Europe,” the ECA said.