CHENGDU: Standing in the lobby of United Eagle Airlines Co, LTD (UEA) head office, Philippe Burtonboy appears happy and relaxed.
The 50-year-old Belgian is a celebrity in Chengdu, even though he has been here for just four months, as he is the first foreign captain to pilot a plane in Southwest China.
"I steered a UEA Airbus A321 from Chengdu to Shenzhen in South China's Guangdong Province last Thursday," Burtonboy said.
Burtonboy was one of three foreign captains hired by UEA, one of the country's four private airlines, alongside Pano Pahygiannis from Greece and David Harrigan from the United States.
The three, who previously worked for US-based Independence Air and US Air, had more than 15,000 hours of accumulated flight time each.
"Philippe and I worked for 16 years with Independence Air," said 52-year-old Pahygiannis.
The introduction of overseas staff is aimed at mitigating the shortage of domestic captains, said UEA spokesman Hu Wenbin.
The number of passenger planes in the country is expected to rise from around 800 in 2006 to 1,600 in 2011, according to the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China.
According to the UEA, the three captains will work in planes flying from Beijing to Shenzhen and Guiyang, capital of Southwest China's Guizhou Province.
Pahygiannis said that he had turned down invitations from many foreign airline companies to sign a one-year contract with UEA.
"I came to Chengdu because both China and my home country Greece have a long history, rich cultural heritage and fine food," he told China Daily.
He was impressed with the hotpot and amiable people in Chengdu. "Chengdu people are as nice as my fellow Greeks," he said.
He said that he likes the relaxed lifestyle in Chengdu, which is quite like that of Greece.
"I hope that my wife and 4-year-old daughter can be reunited with me here," said Pahygiannis.
Pahygiannis has learnt four Chinese characters each day since he came to China four months ago, and he can now speak a little Chinese.
Communication on board and with ground control is no problem as all aviation staff must speak English.
Sources in the UEA said that the annual wage of a foreign captain is around 800,000 yuan (US$100,000), while the average Chinese captain earns about 600,000 yuan (US$75,000).
According to the UEA, the three captains came to Chengdu as part of a package agreement of technical aid it signed with Top Flight, a management company in the United States.
(China Daily 06/26/2006 page3)