Captain Park Kil-Jae, 53, has been flying A320s for Shanghai-based Spring Airlines for 10 years. "It's much better than flying in Korea," he said.
When he decided to take the job that made him the first Korean pilot to join a Chinese airline, he didn't expect it to be the start of a seismic change that has resulted in a shortage of experienced pilots in his home country. Korea has become the biggest source of foreign captains in China.
In 2006, Park had just lost his job at South Korea's second biggest carrier Asiana Airlines for leading Korea's biggest pilot strike in 2005. Spring, China's first low-cost carrier, had just been formed the year before. It only had three planes, but offered him a 20% pay rise.
China, the world's fastest-growing aviation market, has been relentless in luring experienced foreign pilots with fat paychecks to make up for a systematic shortage of domestic pilots and their lack of job mobility.
US aircraft maker Boeing estimates China's commercial aeroplane fleet will nearly triple to 7,210 planes over the next 20 years, and it will need 100,000 pilots over that period – amounting to nearly half of the Asia-Pacific pilot demand and nearly a quarter of the world's total demand. Korean pilots, on the other hand, have been paid below the global average and have hardly won any pay raises since the 2005 strike, according to Korea Times. Korea has replaced the US as the number one place of origin for foreign captains flying for Chinese airlines in 2013, data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China shows.
China opened up its aviation sector – once monopolised by the state – to private capital in 2005 and started the systemic import of foreign pilots the following year. It was the fastest way for Chinese airlines to meet the demand for people to fly their growing fleet.
The number of private airlines has mushroomed since 2013. Market liberalisation has intensified the scramble for pilots. The number of foreign captains in service in China peaked in 2014 to 689, with 264 in airlines fewer than 10 years old – a 62% jump from the previous year.
There were 524 foreign captains in service with mainland airlines in 2015, or 4.73% of the total, a ratio that already declined from a high of 8.49% in 2011. That included 106 from Korea, 71 from the US, and 44 from Mexico.
High pay, a light workload, and fast-track career upgrades are the common attractions for the foreign captains, while geographical and cultural approximity make China especially attractive for Korean pilots.
The after-tax pay for an A320 captain could be as high as US$20,000 a month with a mainland airline, which can also offer foreign pilots commuter arrangements that allow them to return to their home country for long intervals between work stints.
"I can never make that kind of money in my home country," Scott Drummond, 45, who joined Hainan Airlines from the now defunct Canjet in Canada, said,