HK airlines struggle to fill their cockpits
Airlines are giving the thumbs up to the proposed third runway in Hong Kong, but they have been less enthusiastic in dealing with an issue that is equally important in maintaining the city as an international aviation hub - training local pilots.
Since Hong Kong has no aircraft manufacturers and, of course, no air force, it lacks a natural pool of pilots and does not even have its own training school. Airlines are forced to rely on sometimes-fickle overseas hires.
'Foreign pilots are as mobile as mercenaries and jump to other international airlines very easily, as long as the new employer has a deeper pocket,' said Zhong Guosong, vice-president of Hong Kong Airlines, a regional carrier with 18 aircraft serving 21 destinations across Asia, including mainland cities.
'I have come across extreme cases in which the foreign pilot just shipped back the uniform to us, even without a formal resignation before leaving,' Zhong said.
The HNA Group-backed airline faces challenges in filling its cockpits as it plans to expand its fleet to 32 next year, meaning the airline must hire 140 captains (pilots) and first officers (co-pilots) in the coming year.
'The problem was pretty acute when we started to hire pilots for the newly delivered A330 in the middle of last year,' said Stanley Kan, general manager, human resources and administration, for Hong Kong Airlines.
To counter its overreliance on expatriate pilots, Hong Kong Airlines is in talks with the Civil Aviation Department and Polytechnic University about setting up a pilot training school, which would be the first in the city.
The proposed flying school will enrol up to 20 students a year, providing a one-year academic programme at the university, followed by flight training in Australia or the United States.
'We will hand our commercial proposal to CAD in the middle of next year,' Zhong said. 'Hopefully the first batch of trained pilots will join us by 2014.'
Cathay Pacific Airways, the largest carrier in Hong Kong, started a pilot cadet programme in 1998 in which students are sent overseas to a flight training school.
Since the programme started, Cathay has hired 400 of its graduates, who now make up 16 per cent of the airline's pilots.
Although Cathay has doubled the enrolment of cadet pilots to 60 per year, it is far short of the 250 pilots that the airline will hire this year.
As far as Cathay Pacific was concerned, letting its cadets train at a well-established flight school in Adelaide, Australia, was more efficient than running its own flying school, said Carolyn Leung, a company spokeswoman.
But in terms of training cost, Hong Kong Airline's flying school may be more economical than Cathay's model. Putting each cadet through a 14-month training course at Flight Training Adelaide cost Cathay HK$1.2 million, the company said. Zhong said the 'all-in' tuition fee for his proposal would be about HK$600,000 to HK$800,000, including 250 to 280 flying hours at the overseas flight school.
'The local flying school can provide more chances for Hong Kong people to pursue their dreams of flying,' he said. It could also fill in a void in the city's aeronautical industry.
Cathay, on the other hand, said it was more concerned with the quality of a new pilot regardless of where he or she came from.
In June 2009, the airline lifted the requirement that cadets hold a Hong Kong ID card, which opened it to applicants from around the world.
'We have received thousands of applications from young people for the cadet pilot scheme, but we are also concerned about the need to recruit the most appropriate candidates,' Leung said.
As a well-established international airline, Cathay offers competitive pay packages. Since April of this year, all new pilots have received same pay, regardless of nationality, and all are entitled to a monthly allowance that includes an education allowance for children attending international schools. A housing allowance, given only to foreign pilots, has been discontinued for new hires. A locally employed first officer with two children in an international school will receive an annual package of HK$1.2 million to HK$1.6 million.
As a new, regional airline, Hong Kong Airlines' pay package can't compare with top tier carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines. Its pilots earn between HK$600,000 to HK$840,000 a year.
But Cathay still needs to brace for competition from other fast-growing airlines in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East and find a way out to secure a supply of pilots in the long run.
Emirates, for example, one of the fastest-growing carriers in the world, has been hiring pilots at the expense of other airlines, including Cathay Pacific, to fill the cockpits of its expanding fleet.