Swire Group

Airlines struggle with pilot shortage

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 April, 2008, 12:00am

A shortage of pilots and extended working hours that leave little or no time for weekend breaks is sapping the morale of flight crews in the airline industry.

Eighteen pilots at Yunnan Airlines, a subsidiary of China Eastern Airlines, went on strike in late March because of overtime flying duties. Like other airlines, Yunnan had promised to compensate pilots flying the extended hours with extra pay, though the payouts would be delayed, mainland media reported.

Flying does not offer a gilt-edged career on the mainland, with annual salaries ranging from just 120,000 yuan (HK$133,000) to 300,000 yuan, and many disillusioned pilots quit their posts for higher-paid alternative jobs if they can overcome the penalties imposed for early resignations.

In Hong Kong, pilot resignations forced Dragonair to ground eight flights in a single day last October.

Hong Kong Airlines, a small airline backed by HNA Group, needs to recruit eight captains before May to achieve its expansion plan and by the end of March had attracted only a couple of inquiries for the posts.

Unlike big carriers such as Cathay Pacific Airways and Dragonair, Hong Kong Airlines said it could not afford high salaries for its pilots, making them hire from Southeast Asian recruitment markets including Malaysia and Singapore.

A budget airline in Shanghai has also reported difficulty attracting pilots.

Spring Airlines said it needed to hire pilots at higher salaries than those on offer in the industry to compete with big airlines.

'We have to pay a pilot 500,000 yuan annually, compared with an industry average of 300,000 yuan,' said Spring Air chairman Wang Zhenghua. This means the budget airline has to trim costs in areas such as marketing and maintenance.

'Flying has lost its glamour as a profession to the technology business,' said Sherry Carbary, president of Alteon Training, an independent pilot training school.

Military downsizing in the United Sates had increased the supply of civilian pilots since many pilots from the armed forces joined commercial aviation to earn better salaries, said Ms Carbary.

But China and the Middle East have been soaking up the global pilot supply while the United States no long supplies as many pilots to the world as its airlines are undergoing expansion. Shortages have become a serious issue for airlines worldwide.

Some 28,600 new aircraft would be delivered to replace older craft and support growth in air travel from 2007 to 2026, which meant 18,000 new pilots a year on average would be needed, Ms Carbary said.

China will need an average of 2,500 new pilots per year and will have a shortfall of 2,000 by 2010.