China has opened its civil aviation industry to foreign pilots in an unofficial change in policy that comes, in part, as a result of the country's recent entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Hainan Airlines has hired two foreign pilots to operate on the carrier's first international route, between Sanya and Seoul, which was launched in October.

The fast-growing carrier is attempting to recruit more foreigners as it makes efforts to expand its international network, according to industry sources.

One of two newly hired Boeing 737-800 pilots is Australian and the other Irish. The sources say they began flying with Hainan at the end of December, and that the carrier is paying "industry norms".

The prospect of foreign pilots working for Chinese airlines has been under discussion by civil aviation authorities for years. While the practice has been allowed for some time, the sources say, government officials did not "favour" attempts by carriers to hire cockpit crew from outside of the country.

A senior Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) official says the administration changed its rules in 1993 or 1994 to allow foreign pilots to be hired. He says that change originally came about as a result of a request by Hainan.

The sources say repeated attempts by the carrier to hire foreigners were met with opposition, however. Apart from Hainan, China Southern Airlines also sought to hire foreign pilots in the late 1990s.

While the CAAC insists there has been no change in policy now, and calls the practice of hiring foreign pilots entirely an "airline issue", the sources say there has been a shift in "attitude" towards the hiring of foreigners since the middle of last year. Partly prompted by its entry into the WTO, China has recently been working to open up its aviation industry to additional investment from abroad.

While membership is expected to bring about an increase in trade which should provide a boost for the airline industry, observers say Chinese carriers expect competition from foreign airlines to increase dramatically - and as a result some are seeking to add more international expertise and influence. The shift also comes as China's industry continues to experience strong traffic growth and airlines expand their fleets.

Although there is no real shortage of pilots within China, some observers estimate that the country's airlines will, within the next 10 years, need to employ between 1,000 and 2,000 new cockpit crew annually.

Since the early 1990s the country has been greatly enhancing its pilot training capabilities, and Chinese officials claim they are now able to train as many as 800 new pilots each year.

Source: Flight International