Flight training industry likely to collapse as schools 'fall between the cracks'

New Zealand aviators have issued a dire warning that the country's flight training industry is likely to collapse.

The country's biggest trainer is planning to close and smaller companies face a similar prospect.

Instructors at Hamilton's L3 Harris flight school have produced pilots for airlines including Qatar, Singapore, and British Airways, but by February its fleet of 40 aircraft looks set to be grounded.

To keep itself running, L3 proposed establishing its own geo-fenced isolation facility to host international students, and also offered to provide its own security and health teams. But it was rejected by health officials, New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association president Captain Andrew Ridling said.

"This is about keeping the whole industry running and it's at its tipping point now where it won't continue," Ridling told Newshub.

It'll now shift operations to Florida and 120 staff will lose their jobs.

"I don't think it's good enough - these flying schools are falling between the cracks," Ridling said.

Smaller companies like Jeremy Ford's International Aviation Academy of NZ in Christchurch are also struggling.

"For us, we've had to start a restructure process this week for our organisation which will see the loss of jobs by the end of the year," he said.

At Dunedin's Mainland Air, students booked with the company are now starting to pull out and are opting to train in other countries.

"It's a huge deal," general manager Sharley Kean said. "It's a lot of money and they contribute to the local economy hugely."

Current rules mean only those needed to fill "critical" workforce gaps can be considered for a border exception to enter the country - that includes people essential for government infrastructure projects or events. Up to 30 vets, 570 deepwater fishing crew, and 210 farm machine operators were able to arrive in New Zealand, as well as 250 international PhD students. 

"It's not good enough to see 120 families lose their jobs in Hamilton. Seventy well-qualified flight instructors, probably with student loans, that are probably going to lose their jobs, but we can bring Russian fishermen in," Ridling said, referring to the group of fishermen allowed into New Zealand, some of whom later contracted COVID-19.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the system continues to be refined and he acknowledged the difficulties aviation and the wider international education sector are facing. 

He said such industries have been able to apply for the wage subsidy, and the export education levy has been dropped until the end of next year. 

But he said there are problems with offers by L3 and others to set up their own isolation facilities. 

"Nurses, police and Defence personnel are needed to run these facilities, and this is a limited workforce," Hipkins told Newshub.

Aviation New Zealand chief executive John Nicholson said student pilots are high-value imports and the Government should look at other ways of safely delivering the quarantine process.

"We believe that around $225 million went into regional New Zealand this year because of those international students," he said.

Now, it's regional New Zealand that is now losing out.