Chinese airlines seek to end pilot shortage

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Major airlines in China have lowered recruitment thresholds and increased training budgets to lure more college students and graduates into their cockpits as a pilot shortage spreads across the country's booming aviation industry.

In its latest pilot recruitment announcement, China Eastern Airlines, one of China's three major commercial carriers, doubled its enrollment to more than 300, the largest recruitment in the company's history.

While such recruitment had usually been limited to prospective students who are trained through a four-year college-based program, this year the airline has loosened the requirement.

It is now open to university students or graduates aged below 26 as long as they pass a physical.

Experts said the changes should help airline companies restock their fast-depleting pilot pipeline.

In a recent outlook report, Boeing anticipated there would be 226,000 new commercial airline pilots and 238,000 new aircraft technicians in the Asia-Pacific region through 2034, with China taking the largest share-100,000 pilots and 106,000 technicians.

While airline capacity can be quickly increased in a couple of years by ordering more jets, the training of pilots, especially captains, takes longer, according to Li Lei, an industrial analyst with Minzu Securities.

Compared with recruiting high school graduates into four-year college-based programs, training successful university candidates or graduates takes only two to three years, Li said.

China Eastern said it is looking to train pilots for its latest models, including the B787 and A350.

The Shanghai-based commercial carrier, which operates a fleet of nearly 700 aircraft with more than 7,200 pilots, is not the only airline feeling the pinch of a pilot shortage.

Spring Airlines, China's first and largest budget carrier, established in 2005, welcomed its 1,000th pilot last month.

As pilots are hard to come by in the market, the airline invested 800 million yuan ($115 million) to build a pilot training center at the China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone in Pudong New Area in 2013.

Over the past 13 years, the low-cost carrier has trained 657 pilots, with another 150 people receiving initial conversion training annually.

"We spare no cost in pilot training to make sure all pilots master excellent skills," said Spring Airlines Chairman Wang Yu.

In November, Boeing and HNA Group's Hainan Sky Plumage Flight Training Company entered into an agreement to expand pilot training capabilities in China and help meet the country's growing need for qualified commercial pilots.

Under the agreement, Boeing will provide pilot training instructors for HNA Group, including for Hainan Airlines, at the Hainan Sky Plumage training center in Haikou, Hainan province, freeing HNA pilots from training duties and returning them to their primary pilot duties.

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