Ex-Pat Pilots In China Are Making Bank

Growing up, all I ever wanted to be was a pilot. It was all I thought about day and night. Funny enough I didn’t want to be a pilot for a US airline, but rather for a foreign one. I don’t know why, but it always seemed more exciting to me. Being a Cathay Pacific pilot was my biggest dream, though airlines like Emirates, Lufthansa, etc., were also on my mind.

Cockpit

While my obsession with planes hasn’t died one bit (I still look up every time I hear the noise of a jet), over time I’ve realized that a career as a pilot isn’t for me.

Still, every time I board a non-US airline and hear an ex-pat pilot announcement, I can’t help but say “ah, that could have been me.”  I reflect back to when I was a little kid and would sit at the dinner table telling my parents about how I wanted to be a pilot. Every. Single. Night.

Of course I’m not complaining one bit about my gig right now, but that won’t stop me from daydreaming about a different life occasionally.

Even now that I don’t want to be a pilot, I’m still fascinated by ex-pat pilots. Are they based in their home country or the airline’s home country? How often do they fly? How long have they been living there? How do they like it? What were they doing before that? How is the cockpit culture when you have multiple nationalities on every flight?

While over the past couple of decades pilot hiring at the US legacy carriers has been slow, there has been explosive growth internationally, and airlines in the Gulf, Asia, etc., are looking for pilots like crazy. For someone with location flexibility, this presents amazing opportunities to make a lot of money and fly much bigger planes you’d be flying in the US. I have a friend who used to be a regional jet pilot in the US, and now flies the Emirates A380. Talk about an upgrade!

For example, check out this (well produced) video about a Qatar Airways 777 captain based in Doha:

Or this (painfully produced) video about being an ex-pat pilot at Hainan:

Or this video about Vietnam Airlines recruiting ex-pat pilots:

Anyway, there was a Bloomberg article published a couple of days ago about the huge demand for pilots in China, and how they’re recruiting from all over the world, in many cases offering huge pay to get pilots to move there.

They supposedly need to recruit 100 pilots a week for the next 20 years in order to keep up with the demand for growing air travel in China, and can basically take on as many pilots as they can get. Per the article:

Giacomo Palombo, a former United Airlines pilot, said he’s being bombarded every week with offers to fly Airbus A320s in China. Regional carrier Qingdao Airlines promises as much as $318,000 a year. Sichuan Airlines, which flies to Canada and Australia, is pitching $302,000. Both airlines say they’ll also cover his income tax bill in China.

Recruits preferring to live outside China earn a bit less but are offered free flights home to visit family members. Also on the negotiating table: signing bonuses, overtime pay and contract-completion payouts. Earlier this year, Ross saw the monthly paycheck of a pilot he placed at Beijing Capital Airlines: $80,000.

By comparison, the average annual salary for senior pilots at major U.S. airlines such as Delta is $209,000, according to KitDarby.com Aviation Consulting. Some U.S. regional airlines pay $25,000 or less, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, representing more than 52,000 pilots in the U.S. and Canada.

Now the $80,000 per month number seems way off (perhaps that was one month that included a big sign-on bonus, or something), but the pilot pay in China is still huge.

If you look at the wasinc.aero job listings page, you’ll see more realistic numbers (which are still sort of insane). For example, an A320 captain at Beijing Capital Airlines can make up to $300,000.

China-Pilot-Pay

The only reason I mention all this is because I’m always fascinated by ex-pat pilots. On my Fiji Airways flights last week, I had an American captain on the way and an Australia captain on the way back. I’ve had American captains all the time on Cathay Pacific and Emirates, and on my recent Hainan flight even had an American captain.

So if you’re flying a Chinese airline and have a captain with an unexpected accent, now you know why they’re over there.

(Tip of the hat to RB)

Comments

  1. I assume you would need to be able to read, speak and write fluent Chinese in able to be able to make cabin announcements, speak with ATC in China, complete flight logs and converse with cabin crew. This would exclude 99% of non-Chinese pilots currently flying for non-Chinese airlines. Chinese is not a language you can just learn in 3 months.
    If you did speak English and could negotiate commuting from somewhere you actually wanted to live, like Hong Kong or Japan, yes, it would be an awesome job. Locking the cockpit door and not having to deal with passengers would be fantastic.

  2. @Ben
    ATC around the world has been standardized into English. All communications are in English. Period. No exceptions. As are all of the other things you mention. No needing to learn Chinese or any other language required.

  3. @Ben
    Even though they communicate in Chinese with Chinese pilot, but Chinese ATC personel can still minimally communicate with foreign pilot with English. Very minimally.

  4. There’s an e-book floating around that extensively documents the pros and cons of flying as an expat in China. It seems to have some pros and a lot of cons.

  5. All carriers in China that I’ve dealt with keep multi-lingual manuals and logs. Two expats will never be paired together either to ensure at least one Chinese speaker on every flight.

    The Chinese carriers pay well but the lifestyle is not for everyone. I don’t know any pilot friends of mine who lasted longer than 3-4 years in China, despite banking huge paychecks.

  6. Just finished my 737 transition training yesterday with a well-regarded(you can probably guess it) Chinese airline.

    Much like you, I’ve wanted to be a pilot since I was a little kid. I’ve managed to pursue my dreams and now I became the youngest first officer in the system.

    I totally agree with what pavel said in that there are a ton of pros and cons. For starters, it’s a very different company culture, based on what I’ve observed during my short time here. However as you’ve said, it is extremely rewarding in that not only are you paid very well, there are also a lot of opportunities to advance: it’s not unusual to see first officers advancing to captain in 4-5 years.

    With that said, most of the major airlines have a very high emphasis on safety, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly with them in that regard. Though the product is certainly a different story 😉

  7. Just finished my 737 transition training yesterday with a well-regarded(you can probably guess it) Chinese airline.

    Much like you, I’ve wanted to be a pilot since I was a little kid. I’ve managed to pursue my dreams and now I became the youngest first officer in the system.

    I totally agree with what pavel said in that there are a ton of pros and cons. For starters, it’s a very different company culture, based on what I’ve observed during my short time here. However as you’ve said, it is extremely rewarding in that not only are you paid very well, there are also a lot of opportunities to advance: it’s not unusual to see first officers advancing to captain in 4-5 years.

    With that said, most of the major airlines have a fairly high emphasis on safety, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly with them in that regard. Though the product is certainly a different story 😉

  8. In light of this demand from foreign airlines, how can Us regional airlines get away with low pay? Bloomberg article mentioned salaries as low as $25000 a year.

  9. My AA 757/777 pilot friend said the following when I shared this with him:

    “That is good money, but who knows how long it will last. I don’t like smog. The other thing I don’t like is questionable maintenance. And a bad co-pilot can be much worse than none at all.”

    To his defense, he has a family, and is about to move to the long haul 777 routes. This would be a great opportunity for younger pilots, but I’m glad I won’t have to fly on these planes.

  10. @Ivan Y it’s simple the Regionals hire the pilots that have the minimal flight hours needed and will train them, this is how you get your time. With that said, once you been a Capt for a Regional for a yr or two, nothing is stopping you from going overseas to get picked up and trained on a A320 or 737 then work your way up.

  11. Most of the times I got British and Australian pilots on Cathay Pacific and I don’t think I’ve ever had any American pilots. There was only one time I got Canadian pilots and I was flying HKG-YVR-JFK so they were actually YVR based.

  12. @Jonathan
    What would you suggest for someone just starting but have not yet obtained a private pilot lic?

  13. @Seattle Eric: Not sure why your friends believe maintenance is lower in China and Co-pilot in Chinese airlines would be worse then in the US.

  14. @Ben “Still, every time I board a non-US airline and hear an ex-pat pilot announcement, I can’t help but say “ah, that could have been me.” I reflect back to when I was a little kid and would sit at the dinner table telling my parents about how I wanted to be a pilot. Every. Single. Night.” – I feel the same way. I ended up being an Architect instead..

  15. @ABe- well, I recommend going through the process of getting your PPL, CPT, instrument, etc. once you have a competitive profile, then try to seek out to the airlines and see if they can provide the necessary jet transition, type rating etc.

  16. If ATC around the world has been standardized into English why do I keep on hearing Nice Approach Controllers speak French? As if the English speaking pilots queuing in the Riviera approach pattern of France’s 2nd busiest airport wouldn’t need to know there’s low flying helicopter traffic about.

  17. @Jason is wrong. The local language can also be used. In Canada ATC must provide bilingual services in the province of Quebec and the Ottawa airport and I think Moncton, NB as well.

  18. @Jonathan, I have tried to reach out to chinese airlines, but mostly of them don’t have transition program. Only one providing this is SF airline, which is a cargo airline. Do you know if there is any other airlines providing this program? I am currently regional pilot.

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