Number of overseas pilots employed by Chinese airlines skyrockets

Updated 2017-07-17 09:24:13 Global Times

The number of foreign pilots being hired by Chinese airlines has taken off in recent years, as the market's minor players are finding it hard to hire enough domestic graduates to meet sky-high demand.

According to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), Chinese airlines employed 1,005 foreign pilots by the end of 2016, 160 of whom were working for the country's three biggest carriers by passenger numbers - Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines. The number of foreign pilots working in China has doubled since 2010.

Experts and insiders said that large paychecks have been key to this expansion, with some Chinese airlines offering pay several times higher than the international market rate.

Graduate monopoly

The supply of experienced qualified pilots has not kept pace with the speed of the aviation market's growth, especially as the number of private airlines and flight routes is rapidly inflating, Liu Guangcai, a professor at the Civil Aviation University of China, told the Global Times.

There were 59 Chinese airlines at the end of 2016, four more than at the end of 2015, according to the CAAC. Most are State-owned.

State-owned and well-established airlines find it easier to recruit graduate pilots, hiring them straight out of college and putting them into training programs for years.

This has led newer and private airlines to primarily seek out experienced domestic or foreign pilots, and placing less emphasizing on training fresh fliers, Liu explained.

The pilots lured to China by fat paychecks and generous perks mostly come from the US, Brazil and South Korea, Liu said.

According to recruitment agency Wasinc International, some veteran captains are offered up to triple their previous salary to come work in China.

For example, mid-level captains working for Australian airlines usually receive around 0,000 annually before tax. But Chinese airlines offer such aviators annual salaries of 0,000 to 0,000 tax-free, the agency said.

Captain Feng, who has been working for Chinese airlines for over 30 years, says many pilots switch from established carriers to newer companies later in their career.

"Brand-new airlines hire experienced pilots at any cost, even though they have to pay a lot of compensation to the pilots' previous employers. Many are already on long-term or life contracts," Feng told the Global Times.

Paying higher paychecks and compensation for experienced pilots can still make economic sense, however, as Chinese pilots need more than five years of expensive training before they are allowed to fly independently, he told the Global Times.

Feng explained that many job-hoppers also prefer airlines that have shorter working hours or are based in cities that offer higher quality of life.

An aviation expert, who spoke to the Global Times on condition of anonymity, said many foreign pilots believe having a Chinese company on their resume may help their career.

"Those who have worked in China have better chances of getting hired by world-class airlines because China has airports in tricky locations and complex air routes. Pilots are trained to be more skillful," he said.

But obviously, Chinese airlines don't accept every foreign pilot that applies. Airlines have strict assessment criteria and pilots have to pass tests issued by the CAAC, Liu said.

High growth rate

China has only recently begun to develop its domestic aviation industry. The industry only came into existence in the 1950s and for years the number of professional civil pilots was miniscule, Liu told the Global Times.

But the Chinese aviation market has now grown to be the world's second largest. More than 1 billion trips began in Chinese airports in 2016, an 11.1 percent increase compared with last year, according to CAAC.

The trip growth rate has remained over 10 percent for the last five years, while the average rate in the U.S. has been around 4 percent, the Beijing Youth Daily reported.

The total amount and growth rate of new domestic pilots can now more or less meet the sector's demand and expansion, but the number of experienced captains has yet to grow large enough, the anonymous expert said.

More than 50,000 pilots received professional licenses in 2016, an increase of nearly 5,000 people over the previous year, CAAC data shows. A total of 3,500 were young pilots born after 1989.

"Young pilots will be able to carry out flights independently within 10 years. So the phenomenon of the Chinese aviation industry employing well-paid foreign captains will end within 10 years," Liu estimates.

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