Qantas could be making serious money from training pilots within just a few years, according to its boss Alan Joyce, who has pointed to the super-size earnings universities make from foreign students as a guide for the potential financial boon in meeting global demand for skilled aviators.
The airline on Thursday announced that Toowoomba, in Queensland’s Darling Downs region, would be home to the first site of its new pilot training school, beating out a shortlist of regional contenders.
The airline will announce a second site later this year, with each site to eventually train 250 students a year.
“We will not need 500 pilots a year, so a significant amount of them will be for other airlines and overseas training, and we know that Australia does well in academia in that space,” Mr Joyce said on the tarmac in Toowoomba, about 125 kilometres west of Brisbane.
“You ask all the universities - they make decent money on foreign students and we’re not going to be any different.”
Training privately for a commercial pilot's licence at existing Australian schools can cost up to $100,000.
Qantas says an estimated 790,000 extra pilots will be needed globally over the next 20 years - about a third of those in the Asia Pacific - as population growth and burgeoning middle classes see more people take to the sky.
Large airlines around the world are already complaining about a shortage of pilots, who are able to easily double their wages by moving to China where the sector is booming.
Qantas had to cut back some regional services this year because it was running short on pilots, and was recently granted permission to bring in up to 76 foreign pilots and flight instructors for its QantasLink arm.
Meanwhile regional carrier Rex, which has operated its own pilot school for a decade, has said it is struggling to stay flying as about a quarter of its pilots are poached by Qantas and Virgin every year, accusing the larger carriers of "raping and pillaging" its workforce while doing little to train their own pilots.
"It’s not our fault that every single Rex pilot wants a job at Qantas," Mr Joyce retorted on Thursday.
"My answer to Rex is: you need to make it more attractive to stay with Rex."
Qantas said Toowoomba airport’s high-profile owners, the Wagner family, would have the $35 million worth of new infrastructure built in time for the first students to start in the middle of 2019.
Toowoomba beat a shortlist of potential sites including Alice Springs, Bendigo, Busselton, Dubbo, Launceston, Mackay and Wagga Wagga, with financial support from the state government funding and the Wagners crucial to securing the deal.
But the three parties would not say who was paying what for the school, because it was commercial in confidence. Qantas has said it had set aside $20 million for the program.