Chinese carriers offer fat pay carrot to foreign pilots

The number of airlines in China has risen 28 per cent to 55 in the past five years and, according to the Civil Aviation Industry Statistics Report, the fleet has more than tripled in a decade to 2,650.
The number of airlines in China has risen 28 per cent to 55 in the past five years and, according to the Civil Aviation Industry Statistics Report, the fleet has more than tripled in a decade to 2,650.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Start-up airlines also give recruiters free rein to hire captains amid China's aviation boom

SYDNEY • Facing a shortage of candidates at home, Chinese airlines are dangling lucrative pay packages at foreigners with cockpit experience.

Aviation is booming in China, where the number of airlines has increased 28 per cent to 55 in the past five years. The fleet has more than tripled in a decade to 2,650, according to the Civil Aviation Industry Statistics Report. Air traffic over China is set to almost quadruple in the next two decades, making it the world's busiest market, according to Airbus Group SE. 

With passenger numbers in China increasing 11 per cent last year, carriers are scheduling more flights to handle demand. And that requires more captains. Carriers need to hire almost 100 pilots a week for the next 20 years to meet skyrocketing travel demand.

With passenger numbers in China increasing 11 per cent last year, carriers are scheduling more flights to handle demand. And that requires more captains. Carriers need to hire almost 100 pilots a week for the next 20 years to meet skyrocketing travel demand.

Start-up carriers barely known abroad are paying about 50 per cent more than what some senior captains earn at Delta Air Lines, and they are giving recruiters from the United States to New Zealand free rein to fill their captains' chairs.

Mr Giacomo Palombo, a former United Airlines pilot, said he is being bombarded every week with offers to fly Airbus A-320s in China. Regional carrier Qingdao Airlines promises as much as US$318,000 (S$426,000) a year. Sichuan Airlines, which flies to Canada and Australia, is pitching US$302,000. Both airlines say they will also cover his income tax bill in China.

"When the time to go back to flying comes, I'll definitely have the Chinese airlines on my radar," said Mr Palombo, 32, who is now an Atlanta-based consultant.

With some offers reaching US$26,000 a month in net pay, pilots from emerging markets can quadruple their salaries in China, said Mr Dave Ross, Las Vegas- based president of Wasinc International, which is recruiting for more than a dozen mainland carriers, including Chengdu Airlines, Qingdao Airlines and Ruili Airlines.

"When we ask an airline, 'How many pilots do you need?', they say, 'Oh, we can take as many as you bring,''' Mr Ross said. "It's almost unlimited."

About 30,000 pilots fly for Air China, China Eastern Airlines and dozens of competitors, according to the government's Annual Report of Chinese Pilot Development. South Korea, the US and Mexico contribute the most expatriates.

Earlier this year, Mr Ross saw the monthly pay cheque of a pilot he placed at Beijing Capital Airlines hit US$80,000. In comparison, the average annual salary for senior pilots at major US airlines such as Delta is US$209,000, according to KitDarby.com Aviation Consulting. Some US regional airlines pay US$25,000 or less, according to the Air Line Pilots Association.

Offering a fat pay cheque is the only option for the newest carriers because they have minimal brand recognition and a limited performance record, said Ms Liz Loveridge, who is responsible for China recruitment at Rishworth Aviation in Auckland. Chinese airlines are paying as much as five times more than some Asia rivals for new hires, she said.

"They can't attract people through any other means," she said. "They think money's the only answer."

The lucrative packages go some way towards compensating recruits for one of their biggest headaches - government bureaucracy. It might take two years for a pilot to start work in China after applying for a job, she said. "They say they want pilots, but there aren't the resources."

Recruits preferring to live outside China earn a bit less but are offered free flights home to visit family members. Also on the negotiating table are signing bonuses, overtime and contract-completion payouts.

"There aren't a lot of expat pilots who really want to go to China," said Mr Richard Laig, Manila-based partner for the Asia- Pacific region at consultancy Mango Aviation Partners. "There are places that are more comfortable."

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese carriers offer fat pay carrot to foreign pilots'. Print Edition | Subscribe