Expanding aviation market creates openings that can’t be filled locally
Chinese airlines are recruiting more overseas pilots as the aviation market expands. Pilots say they enjoy the work, and records show their salaries are one reason why.
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 said he’d be happy to remain with the Shanghai-based carrier through to his retirement. Besides the money, he likes the company’s considerate offerings 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.”
Richer De Forges is a French pilot who was born and raised in West Africa. At 15, he became the youngest French pilot and gained flying experience during the seven years he worked in Europe.
But to spend more time with his family, 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 tried to look for a work that is close to home, with a decent salary, and good quality of life. I applied to almost all the airlines in China.”
In July 2013, he was among the first group of eight foreign pilots recruited by China Eastern, and he has never regretted his choice.
Last year, the number of foreign pilots working in China was 1,005, with 160 of them working at State-owned carriers such as Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines, with the rest employed at local airlines and transport companies, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
Lin Zhijie, an aviation industry analyst and columnist at carnoc.com, a large civil aviation website, said the Chinese aviation market has been growing by double-digits in the past two decades, as more domestic airlines have expanded their fleets and launched new routes. This has led to a pilot shortage.
Data from the CAAC showed that Chinese airline passengers increased by 11.1 percent year-on-year and total over 1 billion. Domestic passengers amounted to 914 million of that total, up 10.3 percent, while overseas passengers reached 102.34 million, up 19.3 percent year-on-year.
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, which actually places higher requirements on airline management.
“Chinese airlines have to provide competitive salaries for foreign pilots to attract them to leave their hometowns and come to work in China,” Lin said. “Providing high salaries for those mature and skillful foreign pilots is understandable, as Chinese employers don’t have to train them.”
Like Richer De Forges, Elgin Siasat Medina, 43, has enjoyed his life in Shanghai the past 11 years.
According to the commuting contract Medina, of the Philippines, signed with China Eastern, he can have 10 days off to spend with his family in Manila after working 20 days in China each month.
“It’s a balance of work and life,” said Medina, who regularly flies Boeing 777s for about 80 hours per month.
Richer De Forges said he has seen rapid development of the Chinese aviation industry during the past four years. “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, etcetra. I’m sure its growth will continue.”
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 demands a great number of pilots, and we see this trend continuing as the fleet of Chinese airlines keeps expanding.”
According to Fan, since the first batch of foreign pilots arrived in 2013, their department has 66 foreign pilots from 15 countries, including Netherlands, Australia, Canada, the US, Brazil and France.
In China, pilots usually sign lifetime contracts with airlines, so the costs of poaching pilots from other airlines is extremely high, and sometimes they even file lawsuits. By contrast, the contractual obligation for foreign pilots is usually one to five years.
It takes eight to 10 years to cultivate a captain in China, as domestic airlines train pilots through lengthy contractual programs and fixed allocations. By contrast, hiring foreign captains only takes one year at most for approval from the CAAC.
According to Fan, foreign pilots have advantages in English language skills, professionalism, and self-management abilities. Their salaries are usually 20 percent higher than those of their Chinese counterparts.
Industry analyst Lin said that as a whole, the average salary for pilots in China is too high, with the salary for aircraft captains reaching about 20 times the social average salary. The average salary of US captains is about seven times higher than that.
“Foreign pilots have to pass CAAC tests and get authorization. Some pilots can bring in advanced flying perceptions to China, but there are also some hidden problems. For instance, some foreign pilots may not master solid skills, and they may face cultural differences and communication problems with the airport coordinating staff in China,” Lin said.
Foreign pilots working for Chinese airlines can be paid up to four times the salaries in their home countries, such as Brazil and Russia, according to insiders. Some Chinese airlines are willing to pay $26,000 after-tax salary per month to foreign pilots, said Dave Ross, president of Wasinc International, a pilot-recruiting company.
Apart from the high salaries, foreign pilots also see their work experience in China as a bonus for their career, which may help them land jobs in renowned international airlines once they return home.
“In addition to offering attractive salaries to them, we also try to make them feel at home,” Fan said.
Richer De Forges said he was impressed by his friendly Chinese colleagues, who were willing to help him transition to living in China. Richer De Forges said he loves offering help to his colleagues who don’t speak Chinese in areas such as finding accommodations, taking taxis, paying bills and solving other personal and emotional problems.
The cabin crew at China Eastern strives to offer a “local service” for destination flights by hiring nearly 500 foreign flight attendants from Europe, Japan and South Korea, said Dang Donghong, general manager of China Eastern’s foreign cabin crew division.
According to Dang, foreign flight attendants at the airline are becoming a cross-culture channel for passengers to know the Asian country better. The company is also offering these foreign employees an opportunity for personal development.
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