SHANGHAI – If American travelers thought they had it bad these days, consider what happened to passengers on 18 China Eastern flights recently.
The planes took off from Kunming airport in southern China. Some turned around in midair. Others reached their destinations; but without letting passengers off, the jets flew back to Kunming. The weather wasn’t an issue, nor was mechanical trouble, investigators said. Rather, it was a collective act of defiance by pilots unhappy about their pay, grueling schedules and lack of rest as well as lifetime contracts that they can break only by paying a fortune.
China’s Civil Aviation Administration fined the carrier about $215,000 and took away some of its domestic routes. But the agency didn’t address the underlying problem: an airline industry struggling to meet booming travel demand with a shortage of pilots and outdated rules and management.
Fueled by the nation’s economic growth and rising wealth, China’s airlines flew 185 million passengers last year, up 34% from two years earlier. That’s about one-fourth of U.S. passenger traffic. Chinese carriers are buying hundreds of new aircraft but are laboring to find people to fly them.
“The current situation is, you need all the pilots to fly to meet the demand,” said Tian Baohua, president of Beijing-based Civil Aviation Management Institute of China.
The turmoil couldn’t come at a worse time. With the summer Olympics in Beijing nearing and 2 million visitors expected for the Games, demand for air travel is likely to accelerate. China has built a respectable safety record in recent years, but the latest incidents have left fliers nervous.
“Taking the airplane seems to be a little scary to me,” said Xi Ping, vice president of an electronics company in Shanghai who flies several times a month. “I always have safety concerns for airplane trips, and these days I even have to worry about whether the pilots are in a good mood. . . . If pilots returned flights last time [in Kunming], I wonder next time whether they would do something worse.”
The typical captain of a state-owned airline such as China Eastern makes about $45,000 a year, and co-pilots half that. By ordinary Chinese standards, that’s good money. But comparable aviators at China’s private airlines can earn at least 50% more.
More than pay, many pilots say their biggest beef is a punishing work schedule.
Under Chinese regulations, airlines are supposed to give pilots two consecutive days of rest a week. But pilots say managers routinely work them six days a week and deny them other time off, leading to fatigue and raising safety concerns.
“In one seven-month period, I had not even one successive 48 hours off,” said a 35-year-old China Eastern captain surnamed Wu. The 13-year veteran, who works out of northern China, wouldn’t provide his full name, saying he was worried about company reprisal.
Although he doesn’t condone what his colleagues did in Kunming on March 31 and April 1, Wu says he understands their feelings. “My back and waist often hurt these days,” he said. He recently tendered his resignation out of frustration about his own harrowing schedule.
China Eastern, one of the nation’s big three carriers, along with Air China and China Southern, refused to comment.
Other airlines are in similar straits. In March, 40 Shanghai Airlines captains asked for sick leave at the same time. Two weeks later, 11 East Star Airlines’ captains did the same.
In all, some 200 pilots, including about 70 at China Eastern, have taken steps to end labor contracts with their employers. That’s a fraction of the more than 10,000 pilots in China, but many others would consider quitting or changing carriers, if they could afford it.
Most of them signed lifetime contracts with airlines, which have traditionally footed the bill for pilot school and training. That can run $100,000 a person.
Reluctant to let their investments go, airlines are demanding pilots pay as much as $1 million to leave, says Zhang Qihuai, an attorney at Beijing Lanpeng Law Firm, which represents 50 pilots who have sought arbitration or filed suits against eight airlines.
So far, few have found relief from the courts or aviation authorities.
Analysts fault both airlines and the government for letting things get out of hand.
“All that the airlines thought about was increasing planes. Companies that sell planes do not provide pilots with them,” said Tian of the state-affiliated aviation management center. “The government should restrict the number of new aircraft.”
Zhang said it was unreasonable to restrict the mobility of pilots in a market economy. Many airlines, he says, operate as if China were still a planned economy, in which employees were expected to stay with an enterprise their entire lives.
Shanghai-based China Eastern is the nation’s third-largest airline with 39 million passengers last year (about as many as the size of US Airways), and the only one with direct service from Los Angeles to Shanghai. The debt-laden carrier has come under criticism for poor management and employee relations.
After the recent stunt by pilots in Kunming, China Eastern at first insisted that the return flights were weather-related. The incident has further eroded the company’s reputation and hurt its passenger count, travel agents say.
“Now even if some flights are delayed because of weather problems, passengers will not believe them,” Tian said.
China Eastern and other state-owned airlines are also feeling the heat from the rise of private operators.
China Express Airlines, a private joint-venture carrier based in Guiyang in southern China, started operations recently with three planes leased from Shandong Airlines.
Xu Yin, a China Express spokeswoman, says the company plans to add five aircraft this year, but she doesn’t know where it will get pilots. China’s aviation authority has restricted private carriers from luring pilots from other airlines with overly favorable packages.
China Express has pledged to hire 50 students enrolled at a pilot school at their own expense. But they won’t be ready to fly commercial jets any time soon. Xu wouldn’t say how much they would earn, but says China Express is paying its current crew of 30 pilots more than those at Shandong Airlines.
Some private Chinese airlines have recruited foreign pilots, paying $8,000 to $12,000 a month, according to Chinese pilots, who complain that those hires work far fewer hours and enjoy benefits such as a housing allowance that Chinese pilots can only dream about.
“My feeling about that?” said Zhang Zongming, a captain at Hainan Airlines. “I feel very powerless.”
Zhang, 44, had wanted to fly ever since he was a boy growing up in Tianjin, a city east of Beijing. Living next to an airfield, “I could see planes flying into the sky all the time, and I really liked that,” he said. So when the army came to town to recruit high school graduates, he signed up.
He learned to fly in the military and joined Hainan Airlines in 1997.
Starting as a student pilot, he was happy to earn about $600 a month. The young airline had just six aircraft and some 60 pilots, he said. “The entire company gave all of us a flourishing feeling.”
But as Hainan merged with smaller airlines, adding dozens of aircraft and hundreds of workers, Zhang said employer payments for health insurance and pensions were frequently stopped for no reason. Work hours piled up. Zhang said his applications for vacation time were difficult to get approved.
Hainan Airlines, which is largely owned by Hainan province, didn’t respond to requests for comment. In November, after 11 years with the company, Zhang tendered his resignation. He said his salary of more than $7,500 a month didn’t matter that much anymore.
“I realized that if I kept working like this, it would really damage my health.”