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China lures foreign pilots to mainland with big paychecks: Korea becomes the biggest victim

Korea has emerged as the country that is suffering the most from an outflow of experienced pilots to China, which has been luring them with fat paychecks and attractive working conditions.

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2016, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 May, 2016, 1:06am

Captain Park Kil-Jae, 53, has been flying A320s for Shanghai-based Spring Airlines for 10 years.

“It’s much better than flying in Korea,” he said.

When he decided to take the job that made him the first Korean pilot to join a Chinese airline, he didn’t expect it to be the start of a seismic change that has resulted in a shortage of experienced pilots in his home country. Korea has become the biggest source of foreign captains in China.

In 2006, Park had just lost his job at South Korea’s second biggest carrier Asiana Airlines for leading Korea’s biggest pilot strike in 2005.

Spring, China’s first low-cost carrier, had just been formed the year before. It only had three planes, but offered him a 20 per cent pay rise.

Fast-forward 10 years and Spring, now with 52 planes, has become Asia’s biggest budget carrier by market value, while Korean pilots are threatening to strike or leave for overseas jobs if they do not get pay rises — a 37 per cent hike is being demanded by Korean Air pilots, who began industrial action in February.

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China, the world’s fastest-growing aviation market, has been relentless in luring experienced foreign pilots with fat paychecks to make up for a systematic shortage of domestic pilots and their lack of job mobility.

US aircraft maker Boeing estimates China’s commercial aeroplane fleet will nearly triple to 7,210 planes over the next 20 years, and it will need 100,000 pilots over that period — amounting to nearly half of the Asia-Pacific pilot demand and nearly a quarter of the world’s total demand.

Korean pilots, on the other hand, have been paid below the global average and have hardly won any pay raises since the 2005 strike, according to Korea Times.

It is a major factor that could hurt not just the competitiveness of commercial airlines but also that of the whole nation

That is why the growing emigration of Korean captains saw their country replace the US as the number one place of origin for foreign captains flying for Chinese airlines in 2013, data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) shows.

The Korean parliament has called for action to restrict the talent drain that they say puts the national interest at risk.

“A lack of pilots could result in a rise in flight hours and this will eventually compromise the safety of passengers,” opposition lawmaker opposition Park Soo-hyun said, according to the Yonhap news agency. “It is a major factor that could hurt not just the competitiveness of commercial airlines but also that of the whole nation.”

China opened up its aviation sector — once monopolised by the state — to private capital in 2005 and started the systemic import of foreign pilots the following year. It was the fastest way for Chinese airlines to meet the demand for people to fly their growing fleet.

The number of private airlines has mushroomed since 2013. Market liberalisation has intensified the scramble for pilots. The number of foreign captains in service in China peaked in 2014 to 689, with 264 in airlines fewer than 10 years old — a 62 per cent jump from the previous year, according to a report by the CAAC.

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There were 524 foreign captains in service with mainland airlines in 2015, or 4.73 per cent of the total, a ratio that already declined from a high of 8.49 per cent in 2011. That included 106 from Korea, 71 from the US, and 44 from Mexico.

High pay, a light workload, and fast-track career upgrades are the common attractions for the foreign captains, while geographical and cultural approximity make China especially attractive for Korean pilots.

The after-tax pay for an A320 captain could be as high as US$20,000 a month with a mainland airline, which can also offer foreign pilots commuter arrangements that allow them to return to their home country for long intervals between work stints.

“I can never make that kind of money in my home country,” Scott Drummond, 45, who joined Hainan Airlines from the now defunct Canjet in Canada, said,

Mainland captains interviewed by the South China Morning Post said the pay is at least 30 per cent higher for their foreign colleagues even though they fly more. That, and the preferential treatment they receive with roster arrangement and route allocation gave rise to tension between the two groups, with dozens of Air China pilots signing a petition in 2014 demanding equal pay.

Peter Robert, a 36-year old Australian captain at Hainan Airlines, described relations between foreign and local pilots as friendly but not close.

“I think there is a high-level of mutual respect,” he said, adding they “do socialise together”.

Robert joined Hainan three years ago for the opportunity to upgrade to the bigger A330 aeroplane from the A320 he was flying at his previous job with Vietnam Airlines.

“Career progression-wise, it is important to fly longer routes and bigger aircraft, so that was the main attraction, plus the working conditions are very good,” he said.

His Korean colleague Kwak Dongwoo, a 38 year-old ex-Korean Air captain, said his primary incentive was education for his toddler children.

“I want them to learn Chinese. The world economy is revolving around China now. The opportunity they will have is much bigger if they speak Chinese in addition to Korean,” Kwak said, whose family moved with him to Shenzhen for the job.

Spring’s Park said that after a Korean court ruled he was illegally fired by Asiana, he was subsequently given compensation and the right to go back to his previous job.

“If I want to go back I could. But I am very happy here now,” said Park, who lives in Shanghai with his wife and son and speaks basic Mandarin. “I feel I have turned half Chinese,” he said.