Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "When Pilots Become Upset"

Like air travelers elsewhere, passengers in China often fall victim to stormy weather, mechanical failures and increasingly congested air traffic. Thus far, however, they haven’t suffered seeing their flights canceled or luggage unsorted as unionized airline employees picket outside terminals – a scene not uncommon in Europe or the Americas. But alas, China’s air travelers are no longer immune to the impact of labor actions.

After brewing under the surface for months – if not years – the frustration of some Chinese pilots towards their management erupted in full public view this past spring. It started as a series of suspiciously coordinated pilot sick calls at several airlines, state media reported, and it culminated on March 31 and April 1 when 21 China Eastern flights bound for different airports in Yunnan province all returned to Kunming due to “weather.” Hundreds of stranded passengers grew furious when they learned planes from other airlines had safely landed at the same destinations.

Amid ensuing public outcry and media pounding, the civil aviation authority conducted a high-profile investigation. Its conclusion: Only three of the 21 “turnarounds” were due to weather or mechanical problems; the rest were caused by pilots who “ignored passengers’ rights.”

Although the investigators did not elaborate, speculation was rife about the pilots’ motives – ranging from anger at the company over a back-tax dispute to dismay over pay discrepancy between trunk and regional routes.

Many industry analysts, however, said the blame lay with an anachronistic system. Since the pilots are sponsored throughout the costly training process – from the moment someone is chosen to fly an airliner all the way to when he or she receives his license – airlines expect life-long loyalty from pilots. This system had worked fine until the breakneck growth in air travel in recent years changed the equilibrium.

With a sudden shortage of captains and the increasing lure of new airlines, pilots at state-run carriers find themselves in great demand yet trapped in cold reality. They have to pay their current employer an astronomical sum in compensation before they can quit. Case in point: China Eastern last year demanded RMB 12.6 million from a resigning pilot, and a court only recently reduced the amount to 1.4 million. Now ask again why many pilots are disgruntled.

But nobody has gained from the China Eastern labor action. Passengers saw their travel plans ruined. Pilots involved have reportedly been suspended. The airline received severe punishment: It was fined RMB 1.5 million and lost the right to fly two of the most coveted routes in Yunnan, which had long been its cash cow as the dominant carrier in the touristy province.

The biggest loser, however, appears to be the collective credibility of Chinese airlines. One recent evening I was stuck at Shanghai’s Pudong airport. Despite the heavy fog outside, irate passengers mobbed the check-in counters and kept shouting at the agents: “Why is this flight canceled? Are your pilots on strike again?!” Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 36 of the June 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

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