The SIAE struggles to keep up with the fast growth of the aviation industry in South East Asia, which requires a vast number of well-trained engineers and technicians.
Different to many other countries, the Singapore aerospace industry emerged from an airline. Could you describe the way in which this happened?
We are a migrant trading society and grew extremely fast in terms of industrialization. Singapore is unique to every other country in the world given that with 700 sq km and a population of about 5.6 million people, we have about 8 thousand people per sq km in. Even in China we are looking at less than 100 people per sq km, America is 70 per sq km. The densest population in Europe, Holland, hovers around 700. Simply based on demographics, we are unique. We have to assure our growth takes place very fast and the best way was to do this is through business trade. At the start, we set up a joint airline with Malaysia, which is how MSA emerged (Malaysia Singapore Airlines). The government took a major share of the airline and made it grow. We finally incorporated Singapore Airlines in 1972.
Given that we have no internal flights, our focus is international. The Singapore fleet started with three Boeing 707s, five 737s at first, a few inherited Comet 4Bs, the first commercial jets left behind by the British. Within a short time, the market grew beyond what we could manage and, within 20 years, we were the largest 747 operators in the world, with over 60 aircraft. Today, every few years we have a new aircraft. The progression is unbelievable.
With the increase in demand for air transport in the Asia Pacific Region, the demand for aerospace engineers will rise. Could you provide a brief overview of the SIAE and how you see this demand impacting your operations?
At the beginning of the Singapore aerospace industry, we had to be innovative and focused on in-flight services. The airplane was taken for granted. Singapore was here for service and we struck the right chord at the time. We are currently training people to operate the aircraft. There is a gap from the operational side to the educational side of things, which we aim to narrow. Today, the industry is very heavily loaded with technicians but not with sufficient engineers. SIAE has a mission is to build a technology and safety culture for the ‘Next Generation Aviation Profession’ to grow.
Given the increased demand for air transport in the region, what kinds of measures can be taken in terms of safety to accommodate this?
I have concerns about the airline industry in SEA going too fast. The training of pilots and aircraft maintenance cannot keep up given that the business has grown too fast. Singapore is now seen as an aerospace leader in the region. Boeing has projected that we will need around 24,000 technical personnel in the region, aside from pilots, given the new aircraft projections for 2030. Singapore is well placed to provide the training facilities required to meet this demand for engineers and technicians. But the region is still falling short, experiencing fast growth with insufficient technical education infrastructure to support it. China’s technical infrastructure is strong, but aviation infrastructure is still in its early stages.
We cannot compromise on safety standards – it is imperative to training of aircraft maintenance people to support this gap. What I have learned with the CAAS is that the safety equation is not just the airline, but also the airport. Now, more than ever, air traffic management systems are becoming more integrated with the total safety chain.
Which would you say are the main reasons for flight errors today?
Pilot’s error used to contribute significantly to aircraft accidents. The complexity of the modern day aircraft is such that there is no one single error but multiple factors contributing to aircraft accidents. Some of these are latent factors and are not easily understood by the pilots. More intense training is needed. For example, if a pilot inputs even one wrong number with latitude and longitude targets, the computer will fire a warning, but the message needs to be understood correctly. On a recent flight, there was a situation where the computer knew an input was wrong but the pilot in the cockpit who saw the flash still did not respond to it correctly. He then suspected a computer problem and the flight ended up in the wrong city. We urgently need a cockpit culture, which is why we focus very much on human factors training.
What is your vision for the SIAE for the next 3-5 years?
SIAE’s core mission is to have safe skies for the future. If we cannot fulfill our mission with the resources on hand, we should not run it. A technology and safety culture is essential to ensure safety. My concern is that the business world may be making high-level decisions without having the necessary knowledge to manage the compromise between safety and production. We as engineers play an essential role in the safety chain. We provide the professional capital to allow engineers to exercise this duty within the safety chain — from management, to engineers, to pilots. We have this responsibility, which is both technical and moral.