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
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.
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.
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