by William Dennis
After much thought and debate, China plans to raise the retirement age of pilots working with local airlines from 60 to 62 in 2021 as part of its plan to help ease an acute shortage. According to Chinese state projections, the country’s airlines will require 5,000 pilots per year to meet the rapid expansion and growth of the local civil aviation industry.
Outside China, three other Asian carriers have raised the retirement age for their pilots. Japan Airlines was the first when it raised the age from 62 to 64 in 2004, then again to 67 in February 2015 with the approval of the Ministry of Transport in Tokyo. Malaysia Airlines raised the age from 55 to 60 in 2008 and Singapore Airlines from 62 to 64 subject to the health of the pilot and approval from management. Kuala Lumpur-based low-cost carrier AirAsia’s pilots retire at 65.
The number of pilots required by Chinese airlines increases every year as carriers expand their networks and fleets and build frequencies. “More Chinese are traveling out of the country on leisure due to its growing middle class,”.
China’s aviation market grew 13.1 percent in 2017, as 549.7 million Chinese traveled that year. Estimates place market growth at 16 to 17 percent this year.
The world’s fastest-growing aviation market, China continues to attract foreign pilots with generous remuneration packages of as much as $310,000 a year for experienced captains with a current type rating. Some airlines offer tax-free salaries to outdo others.
Contracts usually run three years with provision for expansion. Now local pilots have begun to put pressure on their respective employers for the same salary packages they offer foreigners.
In the early 2000s, virtually no foreign pilots worked in China. Today, Chinese airlines employ pilots from South Korea, South America, Singapore, the U.S., Australia, and even Eastern Europe. Korea, due to its geographical location, remains its main source of pilots flying narrowbody aircraft. Some 1,600 foreign pilots now fly for Chinese carriers.
Some 80 percent of Chinese airlines send their cadet pilots to Europe, Australia, or the U.S. for training. The country now requires cadets to go through a minimum 100 hours of language instruction in aviation English, compared with the previous requirement of 80 hours, before they start their courses in a foreign country.
Chinese schools currently train about 1,800 pilots out of an estimated total of 4,600 a year.
According to Boeing’s 2017-2036 forecast, Chinese airline fleets will close to triple, to 7,240 aircraft over the next 20 years, requiring some 100,000 pilots.