Chinese airlines lure US pilots tired of waiting to be captain

Kent John Krizman has spent 13 years as a co-pilot at American Airlines. For a chance to move across the cockpit, he's ready to take a job in China.

"I should be flying as a captain," said the 52-year-old San Francisco resident, who has 20,000 hours' experience in jet planes. Promotion won't happen for at least five more years at American, while in China it could occur straightaway, he said. He and his wife "are all set to go," he said.

Krizman was one of about 550 pilots who attended a China job fair in Miami last week, as first officers find fewer chances for promotion in the US because of slower airline growth and captains retiring later. There are jobs available in China, where a surging economy and a fleet expected to grow 11 percent a year through 2015, according to government forecasts, is creating a need for experienced crewmembers.

"Everyone is facing a pilot shortage," said Shen Wei, head of pilot recruitment at Shanghai-based budget carrier Spring Airlines. "Foreign pilots are the quickest option."

To help lure overseas crew members, Spring Air pays foreign pilots 30 per cent more than domestic staff, Shen said, without elaboration.

Air China, the nation's largest international carrier, was offering $US198,000 ($A184,000) a year net plus bonuses for Airbus A330 pilots, according to an advertisement on the website of Wasinc International, the recruitment company that helped run the job fair. During the two-day Miami event, which featured about a dozen Chinese airlines, about 70 pilots got provisional job offers, said Scott Snow, a spokesman.

Doubled pay

Roger Grant, an American Airlines co-pilot, said in Miami that he may be able to about double his salary by moving to China and becoming a captain. He also said a move may offer better long-term prospects.

"I've been worried about the direction that the pilot career has been taking," said the 45-year-old, who lives in Boynton Beach, Florida, with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. Workers across the industry are "getting punished" for mistakes made by major airlines, he said.

It's easier for first officers to become captains in China than the US because of demand rather than lower requirements, said Li Yanhua, an associate professor at Tianjin-based Civil Aviation University of China. Air-traffic controllers in China are already required to speak English, in line with global standards.

China demand

Nationwide, the number of pilots in China needs to rise to 40,000 from 24,000 in the five years ending 2015, according to a statement posted on the website of the Civil Aviation Administration of China. There are about 1700 foreign pilots working in the country, according to Spring Air's Shen. Calls to the CAAC went unanswered.

China Southern Airlines, the nation's biggest carrier, is looking to hire 725 pilots this year, including 100 from overseas, it said by e-mail. It employs 4400 pilots. Air China intends to recruit 600 pilots this year, including as many foreigners as possible, it said. The Beijing-based airline has 46 foreign pilots, or less than 2 percent of its roster.

In the US, first officers are finding it more difficult to get promotions as an increase in the mandatory retirement age for captains to 65 from 60 creates a logjam at the top of chain, said Kit Darby, who runs a pilot-hiring and compensation consulting firm in Peachtree City, Georgia.

Pilots who have been promoted at major US carriers are unlikely to leave as even junior captains earn $US12,700 per month on average, plus benefits such as pensions that can boost the package by 40 per cent, he said. Moving to China may appeal to the 4 per cent of the country's 90,000 pilots that are on furloughs, he said.

"To the furloughed or unemployed pilot an overseas job looks pretty good," he said.

Regional carriers

Pilots at US regional carriers, which fly smaller planes on short-haul routes, have also been caught by the retirement slowdown as they lose opportunities to move to better-paid positions flying larger models at a major airline.

Tony Giraldo, 51, for instance, said he has spent 15 years flying "numerous hours on the same equipment with no chance for an upgrade" at American Eagle, which ferries passengers from smaller cities to American Airlines' airport hubs. He was considering a move to China as it offers "bigger aircraft and new possibilities," he said.

Some American Airlines pilots recently were promoted to captain, 14 years after being hired, the carrier said. The wait for advancement was five years in the growth period of the 1980s and as long as two decades a few years ago, said Sam Mayer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association union.

AMR bankruptcy

The November bankruptcy filing by AMR Corporation, the Fort Worth, Texas-based parent of American Airlines and American Eagle, also spurred Giraldo to consider opportunities elsewhere, he said. Krizman, the American co-pilot, similarly said that concerns about Chapter 11 had "refocused my efforts" to look overseas.

American, which has a hub in Miami, wants to cut 400 pilot jobs as part of bankruptcy restructuring, as well as terminating pensions and outsourcing more flying to other carriers.

The carrier's pilots "will remain highly compensated" even after the proposed changes, said Bruce Hicks, a company spokesman. American crew members "have long been among the best compensated in the industry," he said.

China is stepping up pilot training to help meet demand. The Civil Aviation Flight University of China, the country's biggest training provider, plans to accept 2,400 cadets this year, 33 per cent more than last year, it said in e-mailed reply to questions.

Using domestic pilots is simpler for Chinese airlines as there are some restrictions on foreigners flying domestic services, largely because the military controls much of the airspace, said Spring Air's Shen.

"The boom in foreign pilots coming to China may only last a few years," he said. "When we have more choice in the future, I will prefer our own pilots."