Over the next 20 years, China’s airlines will require 5,000 pilots per year to meet the rapid expansion and growth of the local civil aviation industry, and today the carriers are scrambling to hire experienced pilots to address the growing shortage.
According to Liu Shen, a senior official at the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), the number of pilots required increases every month, a fact he attributes to "fleet and network expansion, and retirement of senior pilots who have reached the age of 60."
Early last year, a study concluded that over the next five years the carriers would require an estimated 2,800 to 3,000 pilots per year, but those numbers turned out to be significantly underestimated. Liu pointed out that the industry should now be looking at what it would require in the long term to plan its manpower requirements.
The 12 flying schools across China with expanded training facilities are now turning out an average of only 1,500 to 1,650 new pilots a year.
An estimated 78 percent of Chinese airlines send their cadet pilots to Europe, Australia or the U.S. for training. With China placing a greater emphasis on English, cadets are now required to complete a minimum 100 hours of aviation English in China before they commence their course in a foreign country. The previous requirement was for 80 hours.
As part of the plan to ease the shortage some carriers have independently turned to Eastern Europe and even Russia to attract new hires. In addition to high salaries, some of the companies have even resorted to offer to pay applicable taxes. “With the expansion of the fleets, the increase in the number of private carriers and market liberalization, this is one way of attracting captains and first officers to fill the vacancies,” Liu pointed out
Twelve years ago it was unthinkable for any Chinese carrier to hire a foreign pilot. Getting government approval was a big hurdle. The airlines received the green light from the government to hire foreign pilots in early 2007. Low-cost carrier Shanghai-based Spring Airlines was the first to tap the foreign market, hiring Koreans.
Now 10 years later scores of pilots from South America, the United States, Korea, South America, Singapore and Australia are heading for China. Of the 1,000-plus foreign pilots (captains and first officers) working in China currently an estimated 265 are Koreans.
Among the carriers that currently have foreign pilots operating are Shenzhen Airlines, Spring Airlines, Okay Airways, Hainan Airlines, Lucky Air, West Air, Tianjin Airlines and Sichuan Airlines.
Okay Airways official Chen Du believes that the shortage of pilots will be an ongoing issue for many years as airlines expand their fleets, networks and frequencies. Chen said it is getting more difficult to hire pilots with a current type-rating as airlines around the world are facing the shortage and have the same requirement.
Despite the acute shortage in China, after much debate the CAAC has decided not to increase the current retirement age of 60. This has put a spanner in the manpower projection of some airlines.
In Japan the Ministry of Transport increased the retirement age to 64 from 62 in 2004 and to 67 in February 2015. Malaysia Airlines Berhad raised it to 60 from 55 in 2006, and the Singapore Airlines retirement age is 62, which can be extended to 64 based on the health of the pilot and at the discretion of management. Low-cost carrier AirAsia’s retirement age is 65.
According to Boeing’s 2016-2035 projection, the Asia-Pacific region will lead the worldwide growth in demand with a requirement for 248,000 new pilots, with China needing the most.