Pilots were never in such demand in China, or in such short
supply, if you may say so.
Sichuan Airlines hired 12 pilots from Taiwan last month. It was
the second batch from the island province.
The same airline recruited eight pilots on three- to six-year
contracts two year ago, becoming the first mainland carrier to
employ Taiwan pilots.
Taiwan's Zhang Luzhen made history by landing an Airbus 321 at
Beijing's Capital International Airport in December 2005. He had
flown from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province.
Taiwan pilots are flying to and from Nanjing, Xi'an, Shanghai,
Guangzhou and Shenzhen, too.
All this has been made possible by the mainland's fast growing
civil aviation sector.
The air transport industry has been growing at an annual rate of
16 percent, according to the General Administration of Civil
Aviation of China (CAAC). In 2006, the authorities estimated that
the country would need 9,100 more pilots by 2010 to fly the new
Boeing and Airbus planes being added to Chinese carriers' fleets at
the rate of 100-150 a year.
That precisely is where the problem is because pilots can't be
trained to keep pace with the demand. The gap between the demand
and supply of pilots is likely to be 2,000 by 2010.
China can now produce 1,400 new pilots a year, including the
400-odd that come out of China Civil Aviation Flight College (whose
alumni include 90 percent of the country's 11,000 pilots and many
senior CAAC officials such as its head Yang Yuanyuan.
The rest were trained by airlines, which prepare students in
theories in aviation colleges and universities at home, and send
them abroad for flight lessons.
Dearth of pilots is a problem common to all mainland airlines,
from the big three - Air China, China Eastern and China Southern -
to the private ones. To overcome the problem, they have sought the
help of domestic aviation colleges and universities, as well as
foreign flight schools.
Professor Li Xiaojin of the Tianjin-based Civil Aviation
University of China says at least four carriers - Shenzhen
Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, China Southern and China Eastern -
have adopted this strategy to get enough pilots for their
Air China, the national flag carrier, even set up an aviation
university in Beijing's Shunyi district last month to train pilots.
It has signed a letter of intent with the University of North
Dakota's Aerospace Foundation, a leading US pilot training
institute, for the four-year degree course.
Unfortunately, even that is not likely to solve the problem
instantly. "The problem is that no matter how many pilots are
trained every year, each new plane that is delivered needs five
pilots and five first officers to ensure a smooth operation,"
CAAC's Flight Standard Department official Yang Hu said over the
Fresh flight school graduates can be employed just as first
officers for the first six to seven years after, and only after
that can they become full-fledged pilots, Yang said.
But the airlines buying the new Airbuses and Boeings cannot wait
Airbus alone is expected to deliver 372 planes to Chinese
airlines from December 2007 to 2012. Boeing is expected to supply
another 335 aircraft.
In an interview with China Daily last month, Air
China's former chairman Li Jiaxiang said he had to request the two
companies to provide 25 foreign pilots to fly the airline's newly
purchased planes. That request was met.
Immediately, other Chinese airlines did the same because they
were facing the same problem, he said.
Another practise adopted by the airlines is to recruit
directly from abroad. Shenzhen Airlines is the largest single
employer of overseas pilots. It has recruited 40 pilots from
Brazil. If those hired from Europe and Russia earlier are added,
the percentage of overseas pilots on the mainland would be 10.
So far, 491 overseas pilots have got their licenses from CAAC to
work for Chinese airlines. The actual number of those working is
less, though, because some of them have quit their jobs on the
mainland, a CAAC official said.
The CAAC has issued regulations simplifying the process for
airlines to hire overseas pilots to have enough experienced pilots
for the time being at least.
But, some experts say, the shortage of pilots won't last long.
The country could have more than enough pilots as early as in five
years, Li Xiaojin said.
(China Daily January 3, 2008)