Stormy skies

Why pilots are unhappy about their pay packages

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More of these needed: China has a massive shortfall of pilots

As Ruili Airlines prepares for take-off in Yunnan (see previous article) the fledgling carrier could be heading into an industry row about pilot recruitment, following a public letter of complaint to the CAAC (the Civil Aviation Administration of China) from disgruntled flight crew.

Pilots from various airlines are protesting that they are being treated like indentured labourers. But airline bosses say they can’t be expected to fund pilot training programmes if the recipients then promptly jump ship.

The other warning is more oblique: that job-hopping is putting passenger safety at risk.

Salary is one of the major factors in the row. Captains on domestic contracts at airlines like China Eastern and China Southern earn up to Rmb50,000 ($8,168) a month, a significant amount of money in Chinese terms. But some of the newer airlines are offering much better pay to tempt them to switch. The race to recruit is picking up speed because of a shortage of pilots. According to the boss at one carrier, China is struggling with a shortfall of 15,000 pilots as fleet sizes surge.

Some prospective job-hoppers then find that they are tied up in years of legal dispute and administrative red tape. Zhang Ying, who handed in his notice at the start of last year, is an example. On advising Air China that he was leaving, Zhang was sent a bill for Rmb4.5 million to cover his training costs. The subsequent lawsuit has dragged on for 18 months in what Zhang says is a deliberate tactic to dissuade flight crew from resigning. “Some pilots give up on leaving because of the pressure,” he told CBN.

Zhao Hong, one of the authors of the open letter to the CAAC, also worked for Air China. He sought to leave three years ago, prompting a demand for Rmb3 million in compensation for his own training costs. But Zhao tells Southern Metropolis Daily that the amounts being requested are unfair. “Some airline companies even ask pilots for Rmb10 million in compensation. In fact, the training cost for an experienced pilot amounts to up to Rmb1.2 million.”

Pilots accept the principle that they may have to pay back some of the costs of their training if they leave before an agreed period of service, says Zhang Qihuai, a lawyer working on the current disputes. But many crew members have signed up to “no fixed term contracts” in which service periods and compensation terms are unclear.

Hence this month’s letter asked the CAAC to set out new standards for employment agreements that are better aligned with Chinese contract law. In general, employees can leave a company after giving a 30-day notice period.

But the CAAC relies on a series of additional regulations to govern the aviation sector, with rules intended to boost continuity among cockpit crew. For instance, airlines from eastern provinces have been told not to recruit pilots who have changed jobs more than once in the last five years.

For pilots who do switch airlines, another guideline is that the recruiter should reach agreement with the former employer for a compensatory sum. But in a similar fashion to football clubs who don’t want to sell their players to rivals, the airlines are making things difficult by demanding outlandish fees, a ploy inspired by the knowledge that pilots are already in short supply.

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