Over­seas pilots just the ticket for air­lines

As the na­tion’s civil avi­a­tion in­dus­try scram­bles to keep up with de­mand, it’s re­cruit­ing more for­eign flight crew, Wang Wen re­ports

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS -

As the ranks of Chi­nese trav­el­ers ex­pand, do­mes­tic car­ri­ers are adding routes and air­craft at a rapid pace.

But some­one has to fly all those planes, and there aren’t nearly enough lo­cal pilots to fill all the seats. So the na­tion’s air car­ri­ers are in­creas­ingly turn­ing to for­eign pilots, es­pe­cially cap­tains.

For­eign pilots first en­tered Chi­nese air­lines and fly­ing schools in 2003, and their num­ber has grown over the years.

At least 1,778 for­eign pilots had ob­tained li­censes in China as of the end of 2012, and 622 now fly for Chi­nese air­lines, ac­cord­ing to the Civil Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion of China.

HNA Group Co Ltd plans to re­cruit about 80 for­eign pilots an­nu­ally in the next three to five years. HNA Group is the fourth- largest air­line group in China and par­ent com­pany of 14 car­ri­ers, in­clud­ing Yun­nan Lucky Air LLC, Tian­jin Air­lines Co Ltd and Hainan Air­lines Co Ltd.

The group em­ploys more than 210 for­eign pilots, all of whom pre­vi­ously worked for over­seas air­lines. For­eign pilots ac­count for 31.3 per­cent of all cap­tains at Tian­jin Air­lines, and one- third of the cap­tains in the Hainan Air­lines A330 fleet are for­eign na­tion­als.

Air China Ltd, the coun­try’s flag car­rier, em­ploys 49 for­eign pilots, who mainly fly in­ter­na­tional routes con­nect­ing China with Europe and Aus­tralia.

China South­ern Air­lines Co Ltd, which has the na­tion’s largest fleet, re­cruited for­eign pilots for the first time in 2012. Now, 100 pilots fly the car­rier’s Boe­ing 777s and Air­bus A330s.

Most of the for­eign pilots em­ployed by Chi­nese air­lines are cap­tains, es­pe­cially those fly­ing wide- body air­craft, such as the A330 and Boe­ing 777, be­cause China’s civil avi­a­tion in­dus­try des­per­ately needs ex­pe­ri­enced cap­tains, not just or­di­nary pilots.

Shang­hai- based Spring Air­lines Co Ltd has 59 for­eign cap­tains from 12 coun­tries and plans to in­crease the num­ber ev­ery year, said Zhang Wuan, spokesman for China’s largest bud­get air­line.

The for­eign cap­tains still mainly work on do­mes­tic routes, Zhang said, al­though they only can fly to China’s in­ter­na­tional air­ports.

“Com­pared with train­ing new­com­ers, it is much more con­ve­nient to re­cruit for­eign cap­tains, who are well- trained and very ex­pe­ri­enced,” Zhang said.

Usu­ally, it takes two or three years to train a pilot. Mak­ing the grade as a cap­tain re­quires five to eight years in the sky.

But an over­all pilot short­age is the ba­sic rea­son Chi­nese air­lines are scour­ing the world for flight crew.

China will need 77,400 new pilots through 2032, as the coun­try will triple its fleet to 6,450 air­craft, Boe­ing Co, the United States- based air­craft man­u­fac­turer, said in Septem­ber.

But there were only 31,381 li­censed pilots in China at the end of 2012, ac­cord­ing to the CAAC.

The na­tion’s short­age of pilots ex­ceeded 10,000 in 2012, and the num­ber is even big­ger now, said Zou Jian­jun, a pro­fes­sor at the Civil Avi­a­tion Man­age­ment In­sti­tute of China.

For­eign pilots are an ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion for Chi­nese air­lines, as the do­mes­tic pilot train­ing sys­tem can’t keep up with de­mand, Zou said.

At­trac­tive al­ter­na­tive

Po­si­tions at Chi­nese air­lines look good to many for­eign pilots. Chi­nese air­lines of­fer high salaries, and they of­fer an al­ter­na­tive to the cost­cut­ting that’s af­fected the Western civil avi­a­tion in­dus­try in re­cent years.

The av­er­age monthly salary for for­eign pilots in China ranges from $ 15,000 to $ 20,000 — dou­ble or even triple what Chi­nese pilots earn and bet­ter than the pay­checks at many Western car­ri­ers.

Some for­eign pilots are also drawn to the chal­lenges of­fered by China’s fast-grow­ing civil avi­a­tion in­dus­try.

“For­eign pilots are more in­ter­ested in Chi­nese air­lines in re­cent years, as China’s civil avi­a­tion in­dus­try is on the rise,” HNA Group said in a state­ment to China Daily.

The num­ber of flights in China is ex­pected to grow by about 7 per­cent an­nu­ally over the next 20 years, and the coun­try will be the world’s largest air traf­fic mar­ket by 2030, ac­cord­ing to the CAAC.

“It’s a per­fect ‘give and take’,” said Wolf­gang Muller, an Aus­trian A340 cap­tain work­ing at Hainan Air­lines.

Some Chi­nese air­lines have set up spe­cial de­part­ments to man­age for­eign pilots and help them live in China.

Be­cause of cul­tural dif­fer­ences, Chi­nese man­agers need to be more pa­tient in com­mu­ni­cat­ing with ex­pats, said Chen Xin, deputy man­ager of the for­eign pilot fleet at Hainan Air­lines.

For ex­am­ple, Chi­nese pilots ac­cept that they can’t take va­ca­tion at peak pe­ri­ods in China (usu­ally le­gal hol­i­days), but man­agers need to make this clear to for­eign pilots, Chen said.

Draw­ing up the ros­ter for for­eign

For­eign pilots are more in­ter­ested in Chi­nese air­lines in re­cent years, as China’s civil avi­a­tion in­dus­try is on the rise.”

HNA GROUP STATE­MENT

pilots also falls to Chen, and he needs to make sure the Chi­nese co-pilots can speak English, he said.

“But it’s not a prob­lem now, since most of our Chi­nese pilots speak English flu­ently,” Chen added.

Hu­man re­sources

How­ever, car­ri­ers still face chal­lenges in en­larg­ing their teams of for­eign pilots.

For ex­am­ple, ac­cord­ing to a reg­u­la­tion is­sued by the CAAC in 2012, “the pro­por­tion of for­eign pilots should be con­trolled in­side a rea­son­able scope by their em­ploy­ers”.

Also, China has strict health stan­dards for pilots, and most of the for­eign pilots who leave Chi­nese air­lines do so be­cause they’re deemed med­i­cally un­fit, said a busi­ness in­sider who de­clined to be iden­ti­fied.

The au­thor­i­ties are also push­ing do­mes­tic car­ri­ers to train more Chi­nese pilots and stop re­cruit­ing for­eign co-pilots.

Chi­nese air­lines can­not de­pend too much on for­eign pilots or ig­nore the train­ing of flight crews, Jin Yibin, chief pilot of the CAAC, said dur­ing a sem­i­nar in 2012.

Af­ter all, he said, most for­eign pilots leave China even­tu­ally and that will mean prob­lems for air­lines that de­pend on them too much now, Jin said.

Zhao Lei contributed to this story. Con­tact the writer at wang­wen@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

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