CHINA'S air travel industry is soaring, thanks to rising incomes in the world's No. 2 economy, but the same cannot be said about many of its pilots working at state-owned carriers.
Strict employment rules and the threat of lawsuits prevent them from quitting the three state airlines - Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines - in search of higher pay, better working hours or just a change of living environment.
Privately owned carriers such as Hainan Airlines, Spring Airlines and Juneyao Airlines are reportedly offering 30 to 40 per cent higher salaries to poach pilots from state airlines.
According to Chinese media, some airlines have held back on plane deliveries because they do not have enough pilots to fly the aircraft.
And some think the higher salaries paid to pilots could be passed on to consumers in the form of higher ticket prices. State airlines say training costs for a captain are between 3 million yuan (S$623,000) and 5 million yuan over a period of at least seven years.
"In a way, it is not unreasonable for state airlines to want to hang on to their pilots," said aviation expert Gao Yuanyang, noting that training of new pilots in China is mostly paid for by airlines, unlike in the United States where trainees foot their own costs.
State carrier pilots are on open-ended employment contracts, unlike pilots with fixed-term contracts at privately owned airlines.
This means that if they try to quit, state airlines can sue them for as much as 3 million yuan in compensation.
Even if pilots pay up, airlines can withhold the employment documents that they need to take up a new job, or bar them from joining rivals for a set period.
According to state media, there have been more than 1,000 lawsuits in China involving pilot resignations since 2005, even as the country rose to become the world's second-largest passenger-travel market behind the US.
In a rare show of open discontentment, some 530 pilots, mostly from state carriers, aired their grievances in a signed petition posted on the Twitter-like Weibo earlier this month.