Supply and demand in Asia translates to premium pay and opportunities for expatriate pilots: An or A320 captain willing to move to China for Beijing Capital Airlines right now can earn starting pay of $290,000 a year, including various allowances, safety and retention bonuses. The same pilot could “commute” to work at Beijing Capital—one month on, one month off—and make $193,000 a year.
For the subset of pilots willing and able to work in the Far East, the money and rapid job advancement are there for the taking, and will be for the next five years or more, says Michael Johnson, president and CEO of Paramount Aviation Resources Group, a flight crew procurement company based in Virginia. Pilots at U.S. majors, where seniority dominates, can make similar salaries over time but typically have to fly as a first officer for more than 15 years before moving to the left seat, says Johnson. By contrast, at Vietnam’s VietJet Air, ex-pat A320 first officers today can transition to captains in as little as 1-2 years. “They can upgrade at a much faster rate on the same equipment than they presently can in the U.S.,” he says.
Johnson, a former U.S. airline pilot, knows the routine well. He started out flying for TWA, went toand, after the furloughs hit, went to work for a subsidiary of Japan Air Lines based in Honolulu, serving as chief pilot for a long-haul fleet of McDonnell Douglas DC-10s and . He says Paramount is placing pilots with 10 “strong” customers in a variety of Asia-Pacific countries, including China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam and India. “They have access to capital but have a difficult time getting pilots from within their countries, so they rely very heavily on ex-pat pilots to fly their aircraft,” says Johnson of the countries. “With this kind of demand, it’s very hard for agencies throughout the world to place pilots fast enough to keep,” he says. “There is absolutely no ceiling to the number of pilots we can submit to our customers in Asia. They just keep calling us, saying, ‘Send more pilots, send more pilots.’”
Nowhere is that need stronger than in China. Johnson notes that 42% of commercial aircraft deliveries in 2014 went to the Asia-Pacific region, and China took 45% of those, representing about 25% of the total deliveries. “Introduction of new aircraft means demand for new crews,” he says., in its most recent pilot-hiring forecast, estimates the region will need 216,000 pilots over the next 20 years, representing 44% of the 533,000 needed worldwide. Europe will have the second-highest demand, with 94,000 pilots needed, and North America places third, requiring 88,000, mostly for the U.S.
Johnson says there are “thousands” of ex-pat pilots flying in the region, with most of the new recruits coming from Europe, South America, Australia and New Zealand. In some cases, pilots move when carriers go out of business, but in other cases they go because the “terms are so favorable,” says Johnson. He says 5-10% of the pilots Paramount places come from the U.S., where domestic opportunities are on the rise with major airlines hiring in large numbers (see page 62). The U.S. pilots who do take the jobs generally come from regional airlines or defunct carriers, such as ATA and USA3000 in recent years, Johnson adds. He says the company does not place many former military pilots. “They don’t assimilate easily,” he says.
The ex-pat pilot demand could be a relatively short-term phenomenon. Johnson says countries are training indigenous first officers in flight schools around the world, including the U.S. (see page 68), and putting them in the right seat to gain experience with the ex-pat pilots, who provide mentoring. Eventually, those first officers will transition to captain, reducing the necessity for foreign pilots. In the next 5-10 years, however, the demand for ex-pats can only increase. “It’s not feasible for airlines to fill all those seats,” Johnson says.
Contracts are typically for 3-5 years, although most are renewable, with mandatory retirement at 60 years of age for pilots working in China. Paramount finds potential applicants using a database of “tens of thousands” of pilots who have registered with the company and through advertising on aviation job-posting sites. “The majority of our job is making sure the pilot is who he says he is,” says Johnson. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s not a problem, but 1% lie about their experience. Our job is to screen out the 1%.”
Many customers in the Asia-Pacific region are looking for “turn-key” pilots for a particular aircraft type in order to accelerate the process of getting them onto the line to fly. Paramount screens job candidates by checking with the regulators and phoning the applicants to test their knowledge. For those that pass, the company compiles a binder with documents, licenses, validation letters and employment references that it sends to the airline customers. Paramount then coordinates interviews with the pilots in which the airline has expressed interest.
As to quality of life, Johnson says flying schedules are generally equivalent to those of U.S. carriers, and pilots are pleased with the money, vacations and stability of the jobs. “East vs. West” cultural and perception issues can arise, but it helps that the large numbers of ex-pats “work together and really bond,” he says.