Local airlines’ pilots are fleeing nests for China

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Local airlines’ pilots are fleeing nests for China

Korea’s two main airlines are losing pilots to Chinese rivals, said a lawmaker.

Commercial aircraft piloting is a well-paying job with prestige in Korea. But data shows a sharp rise in turnover among pilots at Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, suggesting that Chinese competitors are luring them away with better pay packages.

According to Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport data compiled from Korea’s seven air carriers submitted to Rep. Kim Sang-hee of the New Political Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) for a parliamentary audit on Friday, the turnover rate for Korean Air pilots recently shot up to 42 people in the first seven months of this year compared to 26 in 2013 and 27 in 2014.

The turnover at Asiana also rose sharply. The nation’s second-largest carrier saw 29 pilots leave the company in the first seven months compared to 24 in 2013 and 31 in 2014.

When including five low-cost carriers - Jeju Air, Jin Air, Air Busan, T-way Air and Eastar Jet - the turnover rate of all seven carriers steadily increased over the past few years to reach 138 in the first seven months of this year. In 2013, 111 pilots left local carriers and in 2014 the number was 155.

There are a total of 4,631 Korean pilots and 543 foreign pilots working for the seven carriers. As some carriers like Korean Air put additional aircraft into operation, the local industry increased pilot recruitment. But only 100 new Korean pilots joined the industry in the first seven months of the year, while the number of foreign pilots remained about the same.

At Korean Air, the average annual salary for pilots with 15 years of flight experience is as high as 150 million won ($126,750). Korean pilots work an average of 16 years at the carrier and foreign pilots an average of 14.1 years.

China’s airline industry has skyrocketed and it needs pilots.

The International Air Transport Association estimates that nearly 25 percent of the world’s commercial aircraft passengers will be Chinese by 2017.

To meet the explosive demand, the central government’s aviation authority started allowing private companies to enter the aviation industry in 2013 for six years.

Chinese carriers have offered salaries of 200 to 400 million won to Korean pilots along with free housing, children’s tuition costs and some tax waivers.

Another factor pulling Korean pilots to Chinese carriers is working hours.

According to the data Rep. Kim obtained from the Transport Ministry, pilots at Jeju Air worked an average of 72 hours a month, followed by Korean Air’s 64 hours, Air Busan’s 63 hours and Asiana’s 58 hours.

The hours are shorter at Chinese airlines.

“It takes time and resources [for the local aviation industry] to nurture skilled pilots,” Kim said in a statement on Friday. “The local industry should hurry to come up with a solution to keep highly skilled talents.”

BY KIM JI-YOON [kim.jiyoon@joongang.co.kr]
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