By Lee Hyo-sik
Air China and other China-based airlines are eager to recruit experienced Korean pilots to meet surging air travel demand in the world’s fastest growing economy, according to aviation industry officials Wednesday. The move is expected to further aggravate an already-dire pilot shortage here.
However, it appears that Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and low-cost carriers have yet to feel threatened by their Chinese rivals’ move.
Industry officials said several Chinese airline firms held a job fair here recently to secure experienced pilots by offering high wages and generous benefits which may woo some of the pilots.
The starting annual salary for captains at the nation’s two flagship carriers, Korean Air and Asiana, is about 120 million won ($110,000). But Chinese airlines reportedly offered up to 170 million won, on top of housing subsidies and other benefits.
In a recent survey of 481 pilots at Korean Air conducted by their union, 72 percent, or 344, said they would quit and work for other airlines.
``It is no surprise that the majority of unionized pilots want to leave the nation’s largest air carrier, given their low salary and poor benefits. Non-Korean pilots employed by Korean Air and pilots at foreign airlines make more money and receive more padded welfare packages,’’ said Lee Kyu-nam, first vice president of the Korean Air Flight Crew Union.
Lee said there are many unionized Korean Air pilots interested in working for Chinese airlines because of this.
``Chinese airlines face a shortage of well-trained aviators as they put more airplanes into operation to meet rising air travel demand among Chinese tourists. Given the fact that most unionized Korean Air pilots are not happy with company management, I think many could quit and work for Chinese and other foreign carriers,’’ he said.
An official at Asiana’s Flight Crew Union echoed Lee’s remarks, saying that many Asiana pilots have and will move to Chinese airlines.
``As far as I know, dozens of Asiana pilots have quit and now work for several Chinese carriers, including Air China, China Southern Airlines and Hainan Airlines. China is the world’s black hole for all types of resources, including pilots,’’ said the official, asking not to be named.
He then said Asiana management should come out with a range of measures to prevent its aviators from leaving, stressing it may face a severe pilot exodus.
However, Korean Air and Asiana managements have not taken the matter seriously, with both airlines saying that they will keep an eye on the situation.
``We have not detected any patterns that our pilots are moving to Chinese carriers en masse. But given China’s booming aviation market, we will closely monitor the movements of Chinese airlines to check whether they attempt to recruit our manpower,’’ a Korean Air spokesman said.
An Asiana spokesman also said the company will just monitor the situation closely for the time being. ``It is true that some of our pilots have moved to Chinese carriers over the past few years. But it is nothing significant and there is no need to worry about it.’’
However, China’s attempt to hire pilots currently working at domestic air carriers is expected to worsen an already-serious pilot shortage. Airlines here have been engaged in a fierce ``recruitment war’’ for aviators as they face difficulty in finding qualified people to operate their growing number of aircraft.
Local airlines have added dozens of planes to their fleets over the past few years as more Koreans head overseas for leisure and other purposes.
Additionally, they are scheduled to put more aircraft into operation over the next few years in anticipation of continued growing travel demand, both inbound and outbound.
Korea Air currently has 2,550 pilots on its payroll, operating a fleet of 105 airplanes. It plans to hire 150 more this year as 18 new airplanes have been and will be introduced.
Asiana employs 1,176 pilots with a fleet of 74 aircraft and searches for well-trained pilots throughout the year.