Carriers out to catch fake pilots if they can
The film Catch Me If You Can is an engaging comedy about a con man who posed as, among other things, a pilot for Pan Am.
But in real life, fake or unqualified pilots are a serious concern.
Mainland carriers are stepping up efforts to weed out unqualified foreign pilots or those with forged credentials at a time when their airlines are expanding rapidly and face a shortage of qualified people to fly their planes.
The mainland will take delivery of 5,000 more planes by 2030, leading to an acute demand for pilots. By 2015, mainland airlines need to hire 18,000 more pilots to fill their cockpits, according to industry estimates. But the handful of flight schools cannot meet the dynamic growth, forcing more airlines to hire pilots overseas.
The mainland now has 1,300 foreign pilots.
A survey by the Civil Aviation Administration of China in 2009 found 103 mainland pilots with fake credentials.
And the problem is global. In March last year Swede Thomas Salme, 41, was arrested in the cockpit after flying for 13 years without a valid pilot's licence.
In March this year a female Indian pilot was arrested after a hard landing at Goa's airport. It was later discovered that she had failed her navigation and other flight exams in 2009.
Foreign pilots came under the spotlight in August after a Korean pilot, then employed by Shanghai-based Juneyao Airlines, refused repeated instructions from the control tower to yield the runway to a Qatar Airways plane, whose pilot said it was running out of fuel.
After the incident, the East China branch of CAAC set up a task force to investigate and reform the training and supervision of 219 foreign pilots employed by six airlines under its administration, including China Eastern, Juneyao and Spring. The investigation prompted mainland carriers to exert more stringent control over the recruitment of foreign pilots.
Overseas pilots have been drawn to China by the attractive remuneration packages.
A captain at a mainland carrier can earn as much as US$19,000 a month plus housing allowance.
This compares with as little as US$19,000 a year at a US carrier, said Shane Lodge, chief executive of Silver Wings Aviation Services, which conducts background checks on foreign pilots who want to work in Asia.
A study by FltOps.com, an information source for United States pilots, showed that salaries for first-year pilots at big American carriers averaged US$36,000 in 2009.
'The huge differentiation in salary gives a strong incentive for foreign pilots to work in China,' Lodge said. 'A few unqualified pilots would be induced to falsify their credentials in light of the fat cheque.'
To apply for a mainland pilot's licence, applicants need to produce an active pilot's licence from their own country, their log book and a medical report.
Frank Abagnale, the real-life con artist that Catch Me If You Can was based on, impersonated a pilot using a fake licence.
Airlines today can verify the authenticity of a pilot's licence before hiring. But they seldom check underlying credentials, such as exam results, for the licence.
Lodge said his company could, with the consent of the applicant, investigate the previous 10 years of their employment to confirm whether their actual record was consistent with what they had represented to the airline.
Norman Mackillop, managing director of Silver Wings, is an English barrister and practised law for five years after serving as a police officer in Hong Kong for 23 years.
He said unqualified pilots were likely to withdraw if they knew that an employer was going to conduct an investigation.
Recruitment agents said they would scan a foreign pilot's background but not necessary as thoroughly as Silver Wings.
'It's good to have third-party investigations, since we can't afford any mishaps caused by one or two black sheep among professional pilots,' said a senior executive at Shanghai Triumph Aviation Management, an agency recruiting foreign pilots for mainland airlines.
The secretary of Air China's board of directors, Rao Xinyu, said the company had a hiring team checking the qualifications and flying history of foreign pilot applicants,
'I am not sure whether we need a third party to conduct such checking,' he said.
Barry Collier, managing director and chief operations officer of Jet Aviation Business Jets (HK), appointed Silver Wings to conduct background checks on its recruitment candidates, including pilots and engineers.
'By conducting background checks at the earliest possible stage of recruitment, we reduce the risk of wasting time, effort and money in arranging an interview in Hong Kong for a pilot who may be located on the other side of the world,' Mr Collier said.
Number of foreign pilots Air China has employed since 2007