CHINA CAREERS: Shenzhen Airlines trawls Europe for captains

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In a small, basement conference room in a Rome hotel, 15 middle-aged Italian airline pilots are watching slides of family excursions to Lotus Mountain and smiling expats celebrating Halloween and Christmas in one of China's most modern and prosperous cities. For recruiters Bessie Wang and Cathy Li, talking up the lifestyle in the "Special Economic Zone" of Shenzhen - which sits on the border with Hong Kong - is as important as promoting the financial benefits of working for the city's eponymous airline.

The pair work for Shenzhen-based agency Flightcrew Resources International and are in the Italian capital as part of a three-city "roadshow" aimed at tempting European Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 captains to come to work for Shenzhen Airlines, a subsidiary of Air China and a Star Alliance member in its own right.

Running these face-to-face presentations in locations where there is a large pool of unemployed or career-stifled senior pilots is becoming an increasingly important recruitment method for fast-expanding Chinese airlines. Wang and Li are visiting Paris and Vienna as part of this trip, and have recently held roadshows in Manchester, Madrid and Budapest.

In the Q&A session that follows the presentation, most of the pilots focus on brass tacks: can they repatriate their salary, which is paid in Chinese yuan? What exactly will the work rotas be? What if they want to leave before the end of their three-year contract? Can they continue to live outside China?

Wang and Li provide the answers. Yes, salaries - up to $202,000 for an A320 captain plus an annual bonus of $6,000 in the first year - are taxed at source and the yuan is transferrable to other currencies. Locally based flightcrew have 30 days' holiday a year, with a guaranteed eight days off per month. Pilots pay a financial penalty if they leave before the end of their contract. However, incentives are on offer for those who renew at the end of three years.

 

 Shenzhen Airlines will recruit about 50 foreign captains in 2012

Captains can be based abroad, with a separate commuting contract that pays around 20% less than Shenzhen-based pilots receive. However, explains Wang, the airline really wants foreign captains to live in the city. Aside from the higher salary, expats can live in a three-bedroom apartment for the same price as one-bedroom accommodation in neighbouring Hong Kong, says Li.

A glossy video shown to attendees aims to dispel many of the concerns some pilots might have about relocating their family to an alien culture. Cosmopolitan Shenzhen - little more than a village 30 years ago but now a commercial and financial hub with a population of 10 million - is a world away from some Chinese cities. Even so, the airline has staff on hand to help families "adjust to life in China", says Wang.

Delegates are told that foreigners can live in largely expat communities in apartments overlooking the sea, and with everything from theme parks, international restaurants and golf courses to upmarket shopping malls and English schools on the doorstep. Family visas are arranged by the airline and spouses can apply for work visas (often as foreign-language teachers).

Almost 1,800 foreign pilots have been licensed to fly for Chinese airlines by regulators since 2007, with Shenzhen Airlines being one of the first to start recruiting from overseas. Today, 120 of the carrier's 500 or so captains are foreign - with most from the USA, Canada, Europe, Korea, Brazil and Mexico. All its first officers are Chinese, but they must attain ICAO level four English to fly with an overseas commander. This year, Shenzhen Airlines will recruit about 50 foreign captains, with "even more" targeted next year, says Wang.

The airline operates 51 A320s, 57 737s and five A319s, with about 50 more narrowbodies on order over the next two years. It requires foreign captains to have 3,000 flying hours, including 500 as pilot in command on type.

The session finishes with Li and Wang taking individual pilots' details. Those interested in working for the airline are told they have to pass an initial check after which they will be invited to come to Shenzhen - the airline picks up the fare and accommodation - for further assessment. The final hurdle is a three-month probationary period.

Some of the pilots attending the session we speak to admit to being reluctant to relocate families. Another is more cynical, suggesting China only wants overseas pilots until airlines can train up their own captains in sufficient numbers - after which foreigners will not be welcome. But at least one former Alitalia captain is very tempted. He worked for a small airline in the Gulf for several years after being let go by the Italian flag carrier, but his wife found the summer temperatures stifling and life dull, so they returned to Europe. Shenzhen, he says, appears much more alluring.

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