Overseas pilots just the ticket for airlines

Updated: 2013-12-13 07:24

By Wang Wen (China Daily)

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As the nation's civil aviation industry scrambles to keep up with demand, it's recruiting more foreign flight crew, Wang Wen reports

As the ranks of Chinese travelers expand, domestic carriers are adding routes and aircraft at a rapid pace.

But someone has to fly all those planes, and there aren't nearly enough local pilots to fill all the seats. So the nation's air carriers are increasingly turning to foreign pilots, especially captains.

Foreign pilots first entered Chinese airlines and flying schools in 2003, and their number has grown over the years.

At least 1,778 foreign pilots had obtained licenses in China as of the end of 2012, and 622 now fly for Chinese airlines, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China.

HNA Group Co Ltd plans to recruit about 80 foreign pilots annually in the next three to five years. HNA Group is the fourth-largest airline group in China and parent company of 14 carriers, including Yunnan Lucky Air LLC, Tianjin Airlines Co Ltd and Hainan Airlines Co Ltd.

The group employs more than 210 foreign pilots, all of whom previously worked for overseas airlines. Foreign pilots account for 31.3 percent of all captains at Tianjin Airlines, and one-third of the captains in the Hainan Airlines A330 fleet are foreign nationals.

Air China Ltd, the country's flag carrier, employs 49 foreign pilots, who mainly fly international routes connecting China with Europe and Australia.

China Southern Airlines Co Ltd, which has the nation's largest fleet, recruited foreign pilots for the first time in 2012. Now, 100 pilots fly the carrier's Boeing 777s and Airbus A330s.

Most of the foreign pilots employed by Chinese airlines are captains, especially those flying wide-body aircraft, such as the A330 and Boeing 777, because China's civil aviation industry desperately needs experienced captains, not just ordinary pilots.

Shanghai-based Spring Airlines Co Ltd has 59 foreign captains from 12 countries and plans to increase the number every year, said Zhang Wuan, spokesman for China's largest budget airline.

The foreign captains still mainly work on domestic routes, Zhang said, although they only can fly to China's international airports.

"Compared with training newcomers, it is much more convenient to recruit foreign captains, who are well-trained and very experienced," Zhang said.

Usually, it takes two or three years to train a pilot. Making the grade as a captain requires five to eight years in the sky.

But an overall pilot shortage is the basic reason Chinese airlines are scouring the world for flight crew.

China will need 77,400 new pilots through 2032, as the country will triple its fleet to 6,450 aircraft, Boeing Co, the United States-based aircraft manufacturer, said in September.

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