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Demand for foreign pilots takes off

By Wang Ying and Zhu Wenqian | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2017-08-27 14:56

Expanding aviation market creates openings that can't be filled locally

Chinese airlines are recruiting more overseas pilots as the aviation market expands. The pilots say they enjoy the work - and records show their salaries are one reason why.

Alexandre Richer de Forges, 38, had worked for international carriers before joining China Eastern Airlines in 2013.

He was able to find a better balance between work and family life and says he'll be happy to remain with the Shanghai-based airline through to his retirement. Besides the money, he likes the company's considerate attitude and friendly crews.

 Demand for foreign pilots takes off

The flight crew of Captain Talal Mohamed (left), a Briton, and Captain Hu Zehui of Ruili Airlines work together in February aboard an aircraft. Airlines in China are recruiting foreign pilots as the industry expands. Zhang Hengzhao / For China Daily

"It's not only about the salary, the working hours, but both - and other things," he says. "I want to continue working here and retire here."

Richer de Forges is a French pilot who was born and raised in West Africa. At 15, he became the youngest French pilot and gained flying experience during the seven years he worked in Europe.

But in order to be able to spend more time with his family, Richer de Forges joined China Eastern Airlines in 2007, since his Chinese wife comes from Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

He did not enjoy his work in Europe, "so I tried to look for work that is close to home, with a decent salary and good quality of life. I applied to almost all the airlines in China."

In July 2013, he was among the first group of eight foreign pilots recruited by China Eastern, and he has never regretted his choice.

Last year, the number of foreign pilots working in China was 1,005, with 160 of them working for State-owned carriers such as Air China, China Southern and China Eastern, with the rest employed by local airlines and transport companies, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

Lin Zhijie, an aviation industry analyst and columnist at, a large civil aviation website, says the Chinese aviation market has been growing by double digits in the past two decades, as more domestic airlines have expanded their fleets and launched new routes. This has led to a pilot shortage.

Data from the CAAC shows that the number of Chinese airline passengers increased by 11.1 percent year-on-year and now totals more than 1 billion. Domestic passengers amounted to 914 million of that total, up 10.3 percent, while overseas passengers reached 102.34 million, up by 19.3 percent year-on-year.

The training of pilots in China is unable to keep pace with demand, and Chinese airlines have no option but to recruit more foreign pilots, which actually places higher requirements on airline management.

"Chinese airlines have to provide competitive salaries for foreign pilots to attract them to leave their hometowns and come to work in China," Lin says. "Providing high salaries for those mature and skillful foreign pilots is understandable, as Chinese employers don't have to train them."

Like Richer de Forges, Elgin Siasat Medina, 43, has enjoyed his life in Shanghai for the past 11 years.

According to the commuting contract that Medina, from the Philippines, signed with China Eastern, he can have 10 days off to spend with his family in Manila after working 20 days in China each month.

"It's a balance of work and life," says Medina, who flies Boeing 777s for around 80 hours per month.

Richer de Forges says he has seen rapid development of the Chinese aviation industry during the past four years. "When I arrived at China Eastern four years ago, it only had a few European overseas flight destinations, such as London, Frankfurt, Paris and Rome. Now we fly to Prague, Moscow, Milan, Madrid, Amsterdam etc. I'm sure its growth will continue."

Fan Haixiang, general manager of the foreign pilot management department with China Eastern's Shanghai flight department, says, "The fast growth of China's aviation industry demands a great number of pilots, and we see this trend continuing as the fleet of Chinese airlines keeps expanding."

According to Fan, since the first group of foreign pilots arrived in 2013, the department now has 66 from 15 countries, including the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, the United States, Brazil and France.

In China, pilots usually sign lifetime contracts with airlines, so the cost of poaching pilots from other airlines is extremely high, and sometimes even results in lawsuits. By contrast, the contractual obligation for foreign pilots is usually one to five years.

It takes eight to 10 years to cultivate a captain in China, as domestic airlines train pilots through lengthy contractual programs and fixed allocations. By contrast, hiring foreign captains only takes one year at the most for approval from the CAAC.

According to Fan, foreign pilots have advantages in English language skills, professionalism and self-management. Their salaries are usually 20 percent higher than those of their Chinese counterparts.

Industry analyst Lin says that, as a whole, the average wage for pilots in China is too high, with the salary for aircraft captains about 20 times the social average. The average salary of US captains is about seven times higher than the social average.

"Foreign pilots have to pass CAAC tests and get authorization. Some pilots can bring in advanced flying perceptions to China, but there are also some hidden problems. They may face cultural differences and communication problems with the airport coordinating staff in China," Lin says.

Foreign pilots working for Chinese airlines can be paid up to four times the salary they could earn in their home countries, such as Brazil and Russia, according to insiders. Some Chinese airlines are willing to pay $26,000 after-tax salary per month to foreign pilots, says Dave Ross, president of Wasinc International, a pilot-recruiting company.

Apart from the high salaries, foreign pilots also see their work experience in China as a boost for their career, which may help them land jobs with renowned international airlines once they return home.

"In addition to offering attractive salaries to them, we also try to make them feel at home," Fan says.

Richer de Forges says he is impressed by his friendly Chinese colleagues, who have been willing to help him make the transition to living in China. He says he enjoys offering help to colleagues who don't speak Chinese in areas such as finding accommodations, taking taxis, paying bills and solving other personal and emotional problems.

China Eastern strives to offer a "local service" for destination flights by employing nearly 500 foreign flight attendants from Europe, Japan and South Korea, says Dang Donghong, general manager of the airline's foreign cabin crew division.

According to Dang, foreign flight attendants at the airline are becoming a cross-culture channel allowing passengers to get to know the Asian country better. The company is also offering the foreign employees themselves an opportunity for personal development.

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