Psst, wanna work in China?

Well, if you happen to be a pilot, and type-rated on almost any modern aircraft, it might just be time to freshen up your resume! Chinese airlines are facing chronic flight crew shortages, and although the problem is not unique to China, the scale of the shortage is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Estimates that China-based airlines will need to hire close to 100 pilots each week over the next 20 years in order to meet projected demand have prompted companies to offer up to $26,000 a month in net compensation with the hope of enticing foreign pilots.

A China Southern 777F in-flight.

After years of strong growth in air freight demand, China Southern reported a sudden reversal of fortune in August. Could the problem be a pilot shortage?

But what does this have to do with airfreight? Does Cargo Facts receive some kind of commission on each new recruit it sends to China? Unfortunately, no. If we return however, to yesterday’s post, Air cargo continues upward trajectory in August, we highlighted a major outlier among cargo carrier performance for the month of August. While most carriers posted decent August results, Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines reported August cargo traffic down 6% y-o-y to 478 million RTKs. This was seen as somewhat of an anomaly for the carrier which has seen only six monthly declines in the last four years.

Could there exist a link between the pilot shortage and China Southern’s less-than-stellar August traffic figures? We suspect there could be. China Southern’s passenger fleet is growing much faster than its cargo fleet. In August the carrier added four 737-800s, an A321 and an A320. This was on top of the 777-300ER, four 737-800s and three A321s it inducted into its fleet  in July. Tickets on many of these new flights were already sold months in advance to satisfy peak-season summer travel demand. And that demand was high: international RPKs for the airline were up 14.7% y-o-y for the month of August, increasing passenger load factor despite the huge increase in capacity compared to August 2015.

If a crew shortage forced the airline to cancel flights, cargo is much more amiable than passengers, and can be put on a later flight.

Returning now to the bigger picture, as Chinese express carriers continue to add freighters at breakneck speed, the question remains, who is going to fly them? Express freight carriers like SF Airlines are already actively recruiting 737 and 757 captains in the United States through agencies such as WASINC International, a pilot staffing agency based in Las Vegas. Name almost any other Chinese carrier – whether an established airline, or a new startup, and they are likely looking abroad for new flight crews as well. Though, in this case, every cloud has a silver lining. It’s quite possible that active players in the ACMI industry (notably ATSG and Atlas Air Worldwide subsidiaries) will find new opportunities to deploy their own pilots, and aircraft.

We invite those interested in learning more about the global pilot shortage to join us at the Cargo Facts Symposium in Miami, 10 – 12 October. To register, or for more information, go to CargoFactsSymposium.com.

Given that it is Friday, we will also leave you with a few videos of China Southern’s spiffy 777Fs.

First, a 777F arriving in London’s Stanstead:

And another 777F taking off from Vienna:

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