Seoul searching

Why Chinese airlines are poaching Korean pilots


In short supply

When Yang Liwei became China’s first astronaut in 2003 he was hailed as a national hero. But strangely he wouldn’t have been allowed to operate at the time as a commercial airline pilot. At 168cm in height he wasn’t tall enough for Chinese regulations, which specified a minimum of 170cm.

Foreign pilots contemplating careers in China have sometimes joked that the country’s medical examination is more onerous than NASA’s.

That said, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) has made things slightly easier in recent years. Airlines are allowed to accept pilots of lesser heights (down to levels at which Yang would have qualified). Eyesight requirements have been lowered so that more people pass the entry test too. This is to combat a state of affairs that saw only 28% of applicants make the grade under the previous cockpit regimen.

China finds itself at the sharp end of a global pilot shortage, which is now so serious that the International Civil Aviation Organisation declared a state of emergency last year. As a result fast growing Chinese airlines have been willing to pay foreign pilots more to work there (the BBC reported salaries of $500,000 a year for some of the newcomers last year). It’s not all rosy for the foreigners though: industry forums are full of horror stories about awful working conditions and perceived discrimination.

Western pilots also worry about a cockpit culture based more on hierarchy than teamwork. South Korean airlines have been familiar with this criticism too: a number of fatal accidents were attributed to too much deference in the cockpit in earlier years, most notably when a Korean Air jet crashed into a mountain on Guam, killing 228 people in 1997.

It turns out that South Korea is one of the countries where the Chinese airlines are recruiting most of their new pilots. This month the Korea Times reported that 460 local pilots had left their jobs over the past five years, with 80% heading to new ones in China.

Clearly, China will need a lot more aviators if it’s to meet the CAAC’s ambitious goals. These include flights from 500 airports under the government’s thirteenth Five-Year Plan (which runs from 2016-2020). And with the opening of a massive new hub in Beijing in September (see WiC469) and plenty of other cities that want airports of their own (see WiC470), passenger numbers are set to grow faster.

Another approach to the pilot shortage is for the Chinese to train more aviators in countries like Australia, where the newest of the training facilities has just received FIRB (Foreign Investment Review Board) approval. This A$30 million ($21 million) project is situated in Tamworth in New South Wales under the aegis of Virgin Australia. However, it attracted controversy after it became known that Virgin had sub-let the facility to AIAC (Australian International Airline College), which is controlled by two Chinese groups: HNA and Winbright Overseas.

The Australian, a national newspaper, described the venture as the “first flying training school to be certified by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]”.

In fact, there are other training schools with a similar set-up, including China Southern’s West Australia Flying College and China Eastern’s joint venture with CAE Oxford Aviation Academy in Victoria.

Tamworth’s mayor Col Murray told the Northern Daily Leader that concerns about Chinese ownership “border on paranoia”, saying that the flight school creates jobs, and that it would be training Australian pilots as well as Chinese ones.

The Chinese are also boosting the number of domestic training centres. Asian Sky Media says there are now 32 CCAR-141 flight schools in China, up from 14 in 2014. Last year, aviation regulators also issued 61,794 pilot licences, compared to 40,057 in 2014.

Boeing estimates that 645,000 new pilots will be needed by 2038, with China set to account for up to 124,000 of the total. This will put tremendous pressure on the existing infrastructure of aviation academies, and drive up pilot salaries. However, such forecasts could equally prove wide of the mark if fewer humans are needed to fly a plane in the future owing to advances in artificial intelligence.

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