Demand for foreign pilots takes off
Expanding aviation market creates openings that cannot be filled locally. Pilots say they enjoy the work, and records of their salaries suggest one reason why
Chinese airlines are recruiting more overseas pilots as the aviation market expands. Alexandre Richer De Forges, 38, had worked for international
airlines before joining China Eastern Airlines in 2013. There he was able to find a balance between work and family life. He would be happy to
remain with the Shanghai-based airliner for many years, he said.
Apart from the good pay, he likes the way the company treats him and the friendly crews. “It’s not only about the salary, the working hours, but
both — and other things,” he said. “I want to continue working here and retire here”.
Mr Richer De Forges, born and raised in West Africa, became the youngest French pilot at the age of 15 and clocked up many flying hours in the
seven years he worked in Europe.
But to spend more time with his family, Mr Richer De Forges joined China Airlines in 2007, since his Chinese wife
comes from Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He did not enjoy the job in Europe, “so I looked for a job closer to home, with a decent salary, and good quality
of life”,and he applied to almost all the airlines in China.
In July 2013 he was among the first group of eight foreign pilots China Eastern recruited, and he has never regretted his choice.
Last year 1,005 foreign pilots were working in China, 160 of them with State-controlled airlines such as Air China, China Southern Airlines and China
Eastern Airlines, with the rest employed by regional airlines and transport companies, the Civil Aviation Administration of China said.
Chinese airlines have to provide competitive salaries to lure pilots away from their hometowns to work in China
Lin Zhijie, an aviation industry analyst and columnist at Carnoc.com, a civil aviation website, said the Chinese aviation market has grown phenomenally over the past 20 years as domestic airlines have expanded their fleets and opened new routes, leading to huge demand for pilots.
In China last year, airlines carried more than 1 billion passengers, of which 914 million were on domestic flights.
The training of pilots in China is unable to keep pace with demand, and Chinese airlines have no option but to recruit more foreign pilots, an onerous undertaking for airline management.
“Chinese airlines have to provide competitive salaries to lure pilots away from their hometowns to work in China,” Mr Lin said.
Under a contract with China Eastern, Elgin Siasat Medina, 43, a Filipino who has lived in Shanghai for 11 years, said he gets 10 days off for every
20days he works, allowing him to spend time with his family in Manila.
“It’s a balance of work and life,” said Mr Medina, who usually flies Boeing 777s 80 hours a month.
Mr Richer De Forges said: “When I arrived at China Eastern four years ago it only had a few European overseas flight destinations, such as London,
Frankfurt, Paris and Rome. Now we fly to Prague, Moscow, Milan, Madrid, Amsterdam, etc. I’m sure it will continue to grow.”
Fan Haixiang, general manager of the foreign pilot management department with China Eastern’s Shanghai flight department, said: “The fast
growth of China’s aviation industry calls for many pilots, and we see this trend continuing as Chinese fleets continue to grow.”
Foreign pilots with Chinese airlines can be paid up to four times the salaries in their home countries, such as Brazil and Russia
Since the first foreign pilots arrived in 2013, the Shanghai department has recruited 66 pilots from 15 countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada,
France, the Netherlands and the US, Mr Fan said.
In China, pilots usually sign lifetime contracts with airlines, so the costs of poaching pilots from other airlines is extremely high, and sometimes legal
action ensues. By contrast, the contractual obligation for foreign pilots is usually one to five years.
It takes eight to 10 years to train a captain in China, domestic airlines training pilots through lengthy contractual programmes and fixed allocations.
By contrast, it takes a year at most to obtain approval from the aviation authority to employ a captain from overseas.
Foreign recruits generally have superior English-language skills, and are often more professional and better at self-management, Mr Fan said.
Their salaries are usually 20 per cent higher than those of their Chinese counterparts.
Mr Lin reckons that the average salary for pilots in China is too high, the salary for aircraft captains being about 20 times the average general salary,
and the average salary of US captains is seven times higher than that.
“Foreign pilots have to pass CAAC tests and get authorisation. Some pilots can bring in advanced flying perceptions to China, but there are also
some hidden problems. For example, some foreign pilots may not totally have mastered the required skills, and they may face cultural differences
and communications problems with airport staff in China.”Foreign pilots who work for Chinese airlines can be paid up to four times the salaries
in their home countries, such as Brazil and Russia, insiders said.
Some Chinese airlines are willing to pay $26,000 (£19,930) after-tax salary a month to foreign pilots, said Dave Ross, president of Wasinc International, a pilot-recruiting company.