The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) plans to raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots from the current 60 as part of a strategy to ease the shortage faced by Chinese airlines. The agency has yet to arrive at a decision on the exact age, but it plans to implement the change in two or three years.
CAAC official Liu Shen told AIN that the shortage could get more acute as airlines acquire more aircraft and that hiring foreign pilots has become more difficult over the past five years as airlines around the world face a similar situation.
“Many airlines in the region have also raised the retirement age, salary and other benefits for their pilots to stay,” Liu noted.
Official estimates forecast a need for about 2,800 to 3,000 pilots annually over the next three years. The 12 flying schools across China can produce only between 1,250 and 1,300 a year.
Local airlines increasingly send their cadet pilots to the U.S., Europe or Australia for training due to the limited capacity at local schools. Cadets must undergo a minimum 80-hour English course before they start training. Some schools require six months of coursework.
Chinese carriers attract experienced foreign pilots with retention bonuses and big salary packages ranging from $240,000 to $310,000 a year for a captain, depending on his or her experience and aircraft type rating.
Airlines prefer hiring pilots with a current type rating in the interest of reducing training costs. Pilots from as far afield as Australia, the U.S., Latin America, Singapore and South Korea fly under contracts that usually run for three years with provisions for extension.
South Korea ranks as the biggest source for Chinese airlines due to the geographical location and cultural proximity. The trend has resulted in carriers like Korean Air and Asiana Airlines recruiting experienced pilots from other countries to fill their own slots.
In the early 2000s Chinese airlines virtually never hired foreign pilots due to an onerous government approval process. Only in 2007 the government did the government relax its rules as a shortage became inevitable.
Despite the looming crisis, Liu said airlines have not canceled or delayed flights due to the shortage.
The Ministry of Transport of Japan raised its mandatory retirement age from 62 to 64 in 2004 and again to 67 in February 2015 to cope with a similar shortage following appeals from Japanese carriers.
Malaysia Airlines raised its retirement age from 55 to 60 in 2006; Singapore Airlines’ retirement age stands at 62, although it can extend the limit to 64 based on the health of the pilot and at the discretion of the management. AirAsia mandates retirement at 65.
According to Boeing’s 2016-2035 projection, the Asia-Pacific region will need 248,000 pilots during that time, the most of any region in the world. Among Asia-Pacific countries, China will require the most by far.