For an expat, working in parts of Asia can bring challenges, but growing airlines are ready to offer attractive packages for pilots
by Greg Waldron
Asia editor, Flight International
The Jakarta headquarters of Indonesian low-cost carrier Lion Air has a definite buzz. Formerly the headquarters of a bank, the frenetic ground floor features dozens of counters where travellers pay cash for tickets.
In the offices above, where the carrier’s various departments are located, the atmosphere is a bit more sedate – but the sense of a growing, prospering company is palpable. This includes the company’s sixth floor operations centre, where young expatriate pilots are not an uncommon sight.
Working in Asia is either a blessing or a bane for a pilot. For a young single pilot with a sense of adventure, few parts of the world are more alluring. For older, married pilots the situation is somewhat different. Trailing spouses may find it difficult to adjust to life in a foreign city, and may have a hard time getting a job. The kids can also be a problem – spots in quality international schools in the Asia-Pacific can be harder to come by than peak hour slots at London Heathrow.
Irrespective of the pros and cons of living in Asia, however, the airlines in this part of the world need pilots and first officers to keep growing. The demand stems from the Asia-Pacific’s booming air travel sector, and the swollen backlogs of both narrowbody and widebody jets in the region. In any given month about 50% of Airbus and Boeing’s deliveries go to the Asia-Pacific – half of which go to China. These aircraft need pilots.
It is these raw numbers that lie behind Boeing’s forecasts of demand for pilots and technicians in the two decades to 2033. The US airframer predicts that the Asia-Pacific will require 216,000 pilots in the next 20 years – 41% of global demand. This compares with 94,000 (18%) from Europe and 88,000 (17%) from North America.
“Airlines across the globe are expanding their fleets and flight schedules to meet surging aviation demand in emerging markets,” says Boeing. “The industry continues to consider how to address challenges and fill the future pilot pipeline.”
Bob Bellitto, director, customer group at Boeing Flight Services says demand for pilots in the region is growing, mainly owing to the vast aircraft orders placed by Asia-Pacific carriers. He acknowledges concerns about a pilot shortage, but feels this actually offers an opportunity for aspiring young people to enter the profession.
“There is potential for a pilot shortage,” says Bellitto. “The way you’ll find out when there is a shortage is when pilots’ pay goes up. When there is a shortage, pilots’ pay will go up, flight attendants’ pay will go up and we’ll all pay more for tickets.”
The link to the jobs list on Flightglobal.com shows a number of opportunities in the region, with jobs at carriers as diverse as Shenzhen Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Spring Airlines, Skymark Airlines, Korean Air, Vietnam Airlines, Air Japan and several others. There is demand for crew on a range of types, from Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s to widebodies.
“We have seen an increased demand for pilots across [the] Asia-Pacific,” says Mark East, managing director of Rishworth Aviation, a recruitment firm specialising in pilots. “The countries that Rishworth has experienced a higher demand for in recent years include Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Taiwan and Korea.”
East offers several points of advice to pilots contemplating a move to Asia. He says it is crucial for a pilot coming into the region to adapt his new employers’ way of doing things, and that a willingness to embrace change is important. He also suggests reaching out to pilots who have made the jump.
“There are thousands of pilots flying in airlines outside their home country. If you are interested in working a different country the best thing is to talk to other pilots who have already done this and learn about their experience,” East says.
Chinese carriers are not asking for young pilots, but very experienced captains
He adds that packages tend to be very competitive in the region, but pilots should consider the cost of living in their new home before making the move. Singapore and Japan, for example, are among the most expensive countries in the world, while the cost of living in countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia is very low. Moreover, pilots paid in US dollars have benefited from the strong rise in the currency this year.
The flip side of this, however, is that the cost of employing foreign pilots gives Asian carriers a powerful incentive to develop their own talent base. Of Vietnam Airlines’ 900 pilots, 300 are foreigners. Through investment in training at home, the carrier hopes to gradually increase the number of Vietnamese captains.
“The Vietnam Airlines flight training centre has modern equipment and good infrastructure to facilitate training, education and accumulation of flight experience,” says a company spokesman. “We want to domesticise training and recruitment to create jobs for Vietnamese. Moreover, increased domestication in pilot training helps cut costs and gives the carrier a firm base for long-term development.” The spokesman adds that prior to 2010 Vietnam Airlines pilots had to go abroad for training. Only a portion of the training occurred in Vietnam at Viet Flight Training JSC (VFT).
“Thanks to the success of technology transfer and shifting a part of training into Vietnam, VFT has helped shorten the basic pilot training abroad from 18 months to 10 months, saving 15% on training cost.”
Indonesia’s Lion Air also wants to become self-sufficient in pilots. The low-cost carrier now requires 100-150 pilots annually, divided roughly between captains and first officers, with experience in A320s, 737s and ATR 72s.
“Local pilots will get the first spots, while foreign pilots will make up the balance. But the overall number could be skewed toward foreign pilots,” Lion Air’s operations director Capt Theodore Midigdo says.
While a major employer of foreign staff, Lion has taken a number of steps in recent years to create its own talent pipeline. The carrier’s Angkasa Aviation Academy opened its second campus in 2013, which aims to produce about 150-160 graduates annually. Lion also ordered four A320 simulators from CAE in late 2013.
Moreover, some Asian carriers tend to require flightcrew with more experience – specifically captains. This is especially true of China. This is a trend observed by Capt Bob Coffman, chairman of the government affairs committee at the Allied Pilots Association in the USA.
“Chinese carriers are not asking for young pilots,” he says. “They are asking for very experienced captains with thousands of hours and type ratings in the appropriate aircraft. These qualified candidates are hired directly into the left seat at globally competitive salaries. We are not, in general, seeing an exodus of young pilots for overseas jobs.”
Perhaps the biggest drawback for any American pilot taking a job in China is the strict seniority system employed by US airlines – and, indeed, a number of Western carriers. Any experienced US captain returning from a stint of China will find himself again at the bottom of the seniority ladder, should he go home.
Still, Coffman feels special circumstances could make a job in Asia attractive. Well-qualified pilots from failed carriers, skilled first officers with left seat experience and pilots with stagnant carriers could find a job overseas to be highly enticing. He notes he had several friends at failed Hungarian carrier Malév who ended up heading to jobs in Asia.
Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways, however, is always on the hunt for a range of pilots – both with experience and newcomers to the industry. A company spokesman says the carrier aims to recruit more than 250 pilots annually.
Its global second officer programme searches for pilots worldwide. Applicants need a minimum of an airline transport pilot licence or a commercial pilot licence, in addition to flying experience. Cathay says it also continues to recruit candidates with “little or no aviation experience” for its 55-week cadet pilot training programme.
“The aviation industry is a competitive market,” says a Cathay spokesman. “Being a leader in the industry, Cathay Pacific offers a competitive remuneration package, international exposure, timely career progression and the opportunity to operate state-of-the-art widebody aircraft that attract candidates to apply.”
Fast-growing economies, the rising Asian middle class and aggressive airlines with rapidly growing fleets ensure that pilot demand in the Asia-Pacific will continue to be strong for both local and foreign pilots. The key for foreign pilots in the region is finding the right country and right carrier, and then making the sacrifices necessary for a successful Asian foray.