Several rumors have been circulating in the international press that Emirates has been parking aircraft in Dubai due to a pilot exodus in favor of Chinese airlines offering superior pay and terms. While AIN has been able to ascertain that at least 14 aircraft, including Boeing 777-300s and Airbus 380-800s, have been parked at Al-Maktoum International Airport of late, the true reasons for this are unclear.
Emirates has been keen to play down the situation, saying that the summer months, aligned with the timing of the Ramadan fasting month, from mid-May to mid-June, when Muslim travelers are less keen to fly during daylight hours, have led to a lull. But the airline did not address the China rumors.
“Our fleet deployment and operating schedules are regularly reviewed in line with seasonal travel patterns and to ensure optimal utilization across our network. We do have some aircraft units on the ground over slower periods, which is common industry practice, but we do not wish to go into details, preferring to keep our plans fluid, which gives us the agility to respond to market demand,” an Emirates spokesperson told AIN.
Boeing’s Current Market Outlook predicts that China will require 253,000 pilots, or 40 percent of the 637,000 the world requires, between 2017-36. North America will need 18 percent, Europe 17 percent and the Middle East 10 percent. As of March 31, 2018, Emirates’ fleet consisted of 268 aircraft—255 passenger-carriers and 13 freighters. The passenger fleet included 102 A380-800s, 138 B777-300LRs, 10 B777-200LRs and five B777-300s. The fleet also included 13 B777-200LRF freighters.
When AIN asked Tim Sanders, manager of compliance and quality assurance at Exclusive Jet Management Asia, Shanghai, China, about the possibility of an Emirates pilot exodus to Chinese airlines, he said: “As the shortage within China has been impacted greatly by rapid growth that far outreaches the ability to train new Chinese pilots, the Chinese airline industry has resorted to ever-increasing salary and benefit packages to entice experienced pilots to come fly in China,” he said.
“These Chinese airline benefit packages, among other things, offer flexible choices of off-time schedules, some including the ability to work as little as 30 days on and 30 days off. Additionally, they often include paid airfare back to [the pilot's] home country during a pilot's off days.
“During ‘On Days’ the pilot will typically work only 20 out of 28 days—four weeks—due to duty limitations, so pilots are not overworked when on rotation. When adding this benefit to salary packages exceeding $300,000 per year and other benefits, it is hard to compete with.”
Sanders explained that even seasoned ex-pat pilots faced one obstacle that could hold them back from moving to Chinese airlines, which was also a problem for the airlines: medical qualifications.
“The China CAAC [Civil Aviation Authority] has the strictest medical standards in the world. Pilots who have taken [their test]…[liken it to] an astronaut physical exam. The standards are so high that, historically, whether the applicant is Chinese or foreign, only about 35 percent pass the exam.
“The two most restrictive areas are height-to-weight ratio and vision. However, even deformation of [an] internal organ, even when functioning correctly, can also raise red flags...In short, the exam is far above the criteria laid out by ICAO, which is the world standard for medical fitness of pilots.”
Other pilot sourcing agencies agree that pilot pay has been rising dramatically in China. “The pay in China keeps going up year after year, and compared to five or six years ago, it is up substantially. Currently, [salaries are] more than $26,000 per month for A320 or B737 captains,” Dave Ross, U.S. partner of Wasinc International, which sources pilots for the China market, told AIN. “For sure, the Chinese are more willing to pay what it takes to attract foreign captains.”
Certainly, flight schools all over the world report greater-than-usual interest from China. “We were thinking of buying a fight school in the U.S., and went around and looked at a few. I would say 75 percent of students [in the U.S.] are Chinese. The schools are just packed with Chinese cadets. The problem with Chinese airspace is that it is militarily controlled, and their flight schools have a hard time processing cadets for that reason. There are many cadets out in the U.S. or Australia,” said Ross.
Kit Darby, of Kit Darby Aviation Consulting, based in Peachtree City, Georgia, was unable to substantiate rumors that Emirates pilots are leaving for Chinese airlines. But he noted, “Emirates pilots haven’t been the highest paid for some time. It’s a good job, but not the best paid.”
He said the beginning of the retirement boom meant a decade of looming and severe pilot shortages worldwide. “The two things driving pilot demand are growth and retirement. The retirement numbers will double and triple in the next few years and are not yet near their peak, which is due in three or four years and [will] stay high for three to four more years. The problem is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. We don’t have an eight to nine-year supply of pilots;we are out of pilots now,” he said.
“We are not going to be able to meet our business plans even if we do all of the things we can think of—and more. We have a current problem that is getting worse and many of the solutions will not deliver the large number of pilots needed for years in the future.”
Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group of Fairfax, Virginia, said he could not accept the theory about Chinese airlines poaching Emirates pilots.
“They have parked a bunch of planes, but I don't accept the Chinese airlines and pilots story for a minute. Emirates is a well-run airline. Only a monstrously incompetent airline would let such a large flock of pilots leave for better terms, without itself offering better terms, and again Emirates is well run. This looks like an overcapacity problem blamed on a pilots problem,” he said.
Although Emirates addressed the overcapacity issue, it did not talk pilot rostering. “I’m afraid we do not wish to talk specific numbers. It is common industry practice to manage capacity in this manner. These months are well known to be the low season for the industry/Gulf carriers. Plus, the low season coincides with Ramadan this year,” the Emirates spokesperson said.
“[I]n 2014 when the runways at our Dubai airport hub needed to be closed for repairs, the airport also chose this exact same time period [May-July] to conduct those repairs—to minimize traffic impact. Similarly, next year  one of Dubai airport’s runways will need renovation, and again, it is this same time period [low season], when the works are being planned.”
According to recent news reports, Etihad is to offer its pilots two-year secondments to Emirates, as the two airlines increase cooperation in an effort to deal with the rumored pilot shortages. Spokesmen for both airlines confirmed to Abu Dhabi-based English language daily newspaper, The National, that the rationalization steps were taking place.
"An internal letter dated June 21 ... [said] the airline had invited staff to submit non-binding expressions of interest for the secondment opportunity, ahead of a roadshow with Emirates’ recruitment team to be held at Etihad’s Abu Dhabi headquarters," the newspaper said.