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Volume 14,Issue 3 Autumn 2012

Is China Facing a Shortage of Pilots?



According to the prediction of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), by the year 2030, the number of civil flights worldwide will double to 50 million, the civil aircraft amount will triple to 151 thousand, and the demand for pilots will double to 980 thousand. In light of this, 52.5 thousand more pilots should be trained and qualified yearly in order to meet these demands. According to the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), 184 thousand more pilots should be trained and made qualified to meet the demands in the Asia and Pacific area alone in the coming 20 years, among which China needs 72 thousand qualified pilots. Simply put, China will be in bad need of qualified pilots in future. Furthermore, some Chinese specialists have predicted that China will likely need 18 thousand more qualified pilots by 2015 alone. Is this really the case?

The Pressures of Flight are Heavy, Fine Management Remains Difficult

In the “China Civil Aviation Pilot Development Report 2012”, published by the Flight Standards Department, the CAAC showed that by the end of 2012, there were a total of 8,518 pilots and 13,176 co-pilots working among China’s airlines. According to an introduction given by a spokesperson from the Flight Standards Department of the CAAC, it is common for a typical flight crew to include one pilot and one co-pilot. However, since the amount of co-pilots almost doubles that of more senior pilots, it is common in China for a flight to be operated with one pilot and two co-pilots. According to data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), China’s civil operators had accumulated a total of 6.19 million flight hours in 2012, with each flight crew averaging 727 flight hours each (6190000/8518). Compared with the official flight limit of 1,000 hours for each crew, the 727 flight hours actually accumulated is certainly less. In light of these figures, it seems that the current pilots are enough to satisfy China’s civil aviation demands. But why do China’s airlines still have difficulties coping with their pilot demands?

First of all, the working situation of China’s pilots is complicated. According to the data of the Flight Standards Department of the CAAC, 10% of all flight crews work long-range flights, in which two flight crews are on duty, meaning that the flight hours of pilots should be increased by 10% to reflect this. Moreover, 10% of China’s flights operate under special conditions, such as flights to and from high-altitude airports. These flights sometimes require two flight crews, meaning another 10% should be added to the total flight hours. Furthermore, 10% of China’s pilots are working in the management sector, resulting in fewer flight hours. In addition, many new pilots are emerging in China. Usually, a flight is conducted by two new pilots or one new pilot accompanied by a seasoned pilot. Therefore, the average flight hours of China’s pilots is seen to grow from 727 to 981 (727*1.35).

Obviously, the figure 981 is still less than the limit of 1,000 hours. However, airlines should still practice proper management and invest in the means to accurately schedule the flight time of each pilot to meet the Industry’s demands. This task requires very high skill in the management of pilots who face heavy pressure in their flight tasks. This is the first reason why it appears that China faces a lack of pilots.

Secondly, the amounts of flights in off-seasons and in busy, peak-travel seasons are very different. Generally, the flight hours of China’s pilots in off-seasons are not long, which is why they can fly longer in busier seasons to meet the heavy demands. However, since the average flight times of China’s pilots are reaching the limit of 1,000 hours, it is very difficult for airlines to adjust these pilots’ schedules in busy seasons. Consequently, China’s airlines have difficulties coping with their pilot demands.

Thirdly, China’s pilots are not evenly distributed among its airlines. Some newly formed or rapidly expanding airlines often run short of ways to train and utilize their own pilots. If these airlines are opening too many flights and increasing their daily aircraft utilization, they will soon face a lack of manpower causing them to recruit a large number of pilots. This, in turn puts stress on the entire civil aviation industry, worsening the climate of pilot shortages.

The Amount of Pilots Grows Rapidly Reserve Force is Strong

According to China’s 12th Five-Year Plan for Civil Aviation Development, during the plan’s period China’s transportation aircraft fleet size and pilot amount are aimed to increase at a rate of 11%. According to the Middle-Term Assessment Reports of the Civil Aviation Development During the 12th Five-Year Plan Period (Middle-Term Assessment Reports) released by the CAAC, China’s pilot amount showed an increase of 14.35%, a growth rate much higher than that of its aircraft fleet.

Therefore, some specialists predict that if China’s pilot amount continues growing by 14.35%, or if it maintains a growth rate more than at least 11%, then the number of pilots will more or less be able to meet the demands of China’s civil aviation industry.

Certainly, either the growth of the pilot amount or the growth of the aircraft amount should not demand the sacrifice of aircraft utilization and the rest time of pilots. The Middle-Term Assessment Reports show that by the middle of the 12th Five-Year Plan period, aircraft utilization in China reached the targeted rate of 9.6 h/d, which is relatively high compared with that of the US’s large airlines, as shown on the AirlineDataProject’s official website. In addition, the data of China’s air transportation in 2012 shows that the hours flown by China’s pilots remain in accordance with the regulations of the CAAC.

In addition, the pilot amount in the next five years can be predicted based on the analysis of the statistical age data of pilots and its structure, as well as the amount of recruited students, retirees and sickness absentees. The data from the CAAC shows that flight hours in 2012 have grown by 10.54% over 2011, and it is predicted that the total flight hours in 2013 will grow by 10.8% over 2012. In other words, the growth rates of these two years are roughly equal to 11%. As a result, it can be expected that by 2016, China will be able to resolve its lack of pilots.

In reality, prior to 2005 China did not face any real shortage of pilots. According to a spokesperson from the Flight Standards Department of the CAAC, in 2005 privately run and regional airlines developed quickly and began to recruit large numbers of pilots. In the year 2005 alone, 1,500 pilots were recruited, which was a large increase over previous years.

As is standard in civil aviation schools and airline training programs, before entering service most pilots study flight theory and receive flight training for two to four years; after beginning their pilot career, they often work as a co-pilot for 6 years or so before being promoted to captain. What this means is that the first batch of student pilots recruited in 2005 will not become fully qualified pilots until approximately 2015. In other words, before 2015, airlines may face difficulties in satisfying pilot demand.

Meanwhile, the recruitment amount in China’s flight schools is growing year by year. For example, this year alone, 3,711 pilot students were recruited in China. As a result, at this point China’s pilot reserve is sufficient.

Other Areas for Pilots to Apply Their Abilities

Although the amount of pilots is growing rapidly, it is incorrect to assume that there will be a surplus of pilots in the future, as they can apply their skills in many different areas.

Currently, China is vigorously developing it general aviation (GA) industry. Being a common problem in most regions in China, the lack of GA pilots also presents an opportunity for qualified civil aviation pilots.

Other industries that need pilots include aircraft and aircraft component manufacturers. Almost every aircraft and aircraft component manufacturer in the US and Europe has its own test pilot team to participate in its product design, production, test flight, etc., as pilots can put forward more practical and professional advice and suggestions on the matter, helping to avoid operational risks. Since China is relatively lacking in this kind of system, it needs a large number of pilots to participate in the production process of aircraft and aircraft components.

In addition, China also seriously lacks flight instructors. The “China Civil Aviation Pilot Development Report 2012” showed that by the end of 2012, there were only 345 private helicopter pilots among the 30,829 civil aviation pilots, showing a large discrepancy in training. According to industry insiders, in the future China’s flight schools will shift from training pilots to training flight instructors. In short, there will be a bad need for flight instructors in China.

In addition to the areas above, the aircraft inspection and meteorological fields as well as other departments of the civil aviation industry also require the participation of many kinds of experienced technicians that often possess some kind of pilot license.

What can be seen from this is that being a transportation pilot is no longer the only career option available to pilots. They will play an important role in the other fields of the civil aviation industry, the diversification in the development of which will create another broad field of opportunities for pilots.

Additional remarks

The predictions regarding pilots are based on the following conditions:

First, the flight hours of transport pilots are now growing by about 11%. If China opens its low-altitude airspace, there will be more flights and likely more passengers which will cause China to need more pilots than currently predicted.

Secondly, China’s civil aviation industry hasn’t experienced any particularly rapid growth in recent years. As China’s national economy develops and the Chinese people’s living standards grow, there may yet be extraordinary development in China’s civil aviation industry. This article doesn’t take into consideration such an assumption. Finally, this article assumes the flight hour limit is 1,000 hours per year, as set by the CAAC. Given the work load of China’s pilots and severe fatigue brought on by longer ground holding periods, in the future China’s civil aviation industry may lower the flight hour limit, in which case the pilot amount needed in coming years will be more than the amount predicted in this article.

























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