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Chinese airlines are poaching experienced Australian pilots by offering more than $750,000 a year, leading to concerns pilot shortages may spread from regional Australia to major routes.

Combined with a decline in Australian pilot training, the lucrative Chinese contracts have prompted some pilots to warn of potential shortages of major airline captains amid a developing global shortage.

Captain Murray Butt, President of the Australian and International Pilots Association, representing 2250 Qantas Group pilots, told The Australian Chinese airlines were offering salaries for domestic pilots beyond the capacity of Australia’s main carriers. “They are talking about 737 training captains earning upwards of $US600,000 ($769,000) tax-free and that’s going to be difficult even for the major Australian airlines to cope with,” he said. “The evidence is out there. People have been talking about a worldwide shortage for a long time and we’ve been a little bit protected because of the number of Australians that have been overseas and have wanted to ... come back.”

It is understood significant numbers of Qantas pilots granted leave without pay to work with overseas carriers during a cost-cutting period are now returning, with pilots again in demand. While this is helping to offset any attrition for Qantas, the decline in pilot training — and the purchase of Australian pilot schools by Chinese airlines — has raised concerns about pilot numbers in the long term. “That’s the problem you have when you are not feeding (new pilots) in from the bottom and allowing people to go through a system to get to the top,” Mr Butt said.

Industry sources told The Australian experienced pilots could earn more operating 737s on Chinese domestic routes than at the controls of Qantas’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Globally advertised 737 captain positions for Chinese domestic routes offer salaries in excess of $400,000; roughly double the salary of a Jetstar or Tigerair 737 captain (about $200,000, according to industry sources).

Sources said Dreamliner captains were expected to earn about $330,000. In China, Xiamen Air is offering $400,000 for 737 captains, Suparna Airlines $415,000 and Fuzhou Airlines $375,000 for EMB190 captains.

It is estimated that China will need an extra 110,000 pilots by 2035, a demand it cannot meet at home. Mr Butt said he recently attended a conference where representatives from five Chinese airlines “all spoke about how they expected to double within the next five years and … were just there to recruit”.

The Australian yesterday revealed government plans to allow regional airlines to hire foreign pilots on two-year work visas, from next month, to overcome a shortage of pilots on regional routes, but Mr Butt’s union has questioned whether the right calibre of pilots will be found, given global wages competition.

Captain David Booth, president of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, representing about 4500 commercial pilots, had not heard of Chinese companies offering as much as $769,000, but said Chinese pay packets of $400,000 were on offer on websites pitched to Australian pilots.  He said some Australian pilots were taking up such offers, but that most would likely be deterred by the loss of their airline seniority status on return to Australia. “China is offering 100 per cent more than everyone else to fly a narrow-bodied aeroplane, but flying there also has its unique challenges,” he said.

Qantas Group spokesman Andrew McGinnes said the airline had no difficulty attracting pilots, with a recent recruitment drive attracting 1000 applications for 170 positions.
Virgin Australia chief pilot Mike Fitzgerald said while pilots were in “high demand” globally, the airline could compete.  “Virgin Australia has a number of pilot recruitment drivers including our cadetship program, the work we do with universities through their pilot training programs, as well as using jobseeker platforms to advertise for experienced pilots,” he said. “All Virgin Australia pilots receive international-standard training, a competitive salary and opportunities to fly a range of aircraft.”

Opposition transport spokesman Anthony Albanese said the Turnbull government had “dropped the ball when it comes to workforce training in aviation”.

“Australia must ensure we have enough pilots and engineers to ensure the ongoing success of our industry,” he said.