Luck of the draw for resigning pilots

By Xin Dingding (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-11-17 06:42

One of China's major airlines has allegedly asked a group of resigning pilots to draw lots to determine which two pilots would be permitted to leave the company.

The move represents the latest twist in a long-running dispute involving pay, contentious court rulings and a rule apparently aimed at keeping the country's booming civil aviation sector flush with pilots.

The story began last November when 10 pilots at the Jiangsu branch of China Eastern Airlines submitted resignation letters in connection with a pay dispute.

However, China Eastern refused to accept the resignations, even after a court ruled in the pilots' favour, awarding the airline compensation to cover its lost manpower.

China Eastern attempted to sidestep the ruling by citing a regulation issued by the East China branch of the General Administration of Civil Aviation (CAAC) in September setting a yearly turnover quota of 1 per cent of an airline company's pilots, according to a report by China Business News.

For China Eastern, 1 per cent amounts to only two pilots this year. So, in an attempt to resolve the standoff, the company reportedly told the 10 pilots that they would have to draw lots to determine which of them would be allowed to leave.

A lawyer for one of the pilots contested the alleged move.

"Citing a local regulation to refuse a court ruling is not acceptable," said Cui Wu, a lawyer representing Tong Xiaobo, one of the pilots who submitted a resignation letter.

In March, the issue went before the Jiangsu Labour Dispute Arbitration Commission, which upheld the legality of the resignations and overruled China Eastern's demand for 2.1 million yuan (US$267,500) in compensation.

After seven months of appeals, the Nanjing Intermediate People's Court made a final judgment on October 16, ordering China Eastern to approve the resignations and to transfer the pilots' labour files and social welfare benefits to their new employers.

To make the loss go down easier, each pilot was ordered to pay compensation fees ranging from 1.07 million to 1.86 million yuan (US$133,750 to US$232,500) to China Eastern.

Still, over the course of the now year-long dispute, three of the pilots decided to bow to the company's demands and have either returned to their posts or are planning to do so soon, Xinhua News Agency reported.

Meng Bin, one of the pilots, was quoted by China Business News as saying that some of the other pilots had received funding from new employers to cover the compensation fees, but China Eastern was still preventing them from leaving.

"Even if no company had wanted to cover the compensations, we would have borrowed the money to pay to leave," said Meng. "The actual problem is that China Eastern never intended to let us go."

Su Guoxin, vice-board chairman of China Eastern's Jiangsu branch, was quoted as saying the airline was holding meetings to deal with the situation. He declined to comment further.

The stand-off dramatizes the shortage of pilots confronting China's civil aviation sector.

China's fast-expanding fleet of domestic airlines requires more pilots than are on the market. According to CAAC figures, China's civil aviation sector employs at least 11,000 pilots and first officers, who fly more than 800 airliners. The CAAC estimates that the number of passenger aircraft plying China's skies is expected to reach 1,250 by 2010, requiring at least 6,500 more cockpit crew members.

To support the sector, the CAAC issued circulations regulating pilot flows in 2004. Among these regulations was one requiring pilots to secure the approval of their employers before resigning. Departing pilots must compensate their former employers to the tune of 700,000 yuan to 2.1 million yuan (US$87,500 to US$262,500) to cover training expenses.

"But the quotas are not mentioned in the circulations," said an official with the CAAC's human resource department in a phone interview.

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