A growing number of experienced South Korean pilots are choosing to leave their home turf and instead work for Chinese airlines, which offer exceptionally higher wages and alluring benefits for foreign pilots.
Some 50 Chinese airline companies have been stepping up efforts to recruit pilots from Korea's major airlines, including Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, according to industry sources.
Chinese companies are reportedly offering Korean pilots with about 10 years of work experience around 200 million won (S$238,000) to 300 million won in annual wages, depending on the position. Beijing Capital Airlines recently raised the bar, offering them roughly 340 million won after taxes.
Such working conditions are far more generous than those at Korean airlines. At Korean Air, a captain with 15 years of flying experience takes home around 150 million won in regular wages and incentives, after taxes.
Combined with tax benefits, housing, child support and other benefits provided by Chinese companies, Korean pilots can reportedly earn around twice or three times as much by working at Chinese airlines instead of Korean carriers.
"Unfavorable working conditions and comparatively low wages are the key reasons why Korean pilots are switching to foreign airline companies," said Choi Sung-ho, a research fellow at Korea Aerospace University's Institute for Aviation Industry, Policy and Law.
"A pilot's work intensity and fatigue levels are inevitably lower at Chinese airlines, which ask pilots to fill just 850 hours in aviation time annually, which is lower than the 1,050 hours that Korean firms expect from their pilots," he said.
Moreover, in Japan and China, a total of four pilots are mandated to stay in the cockpit during all flights regardless of the traveling distance, which helps pilots ease their work burden, according to the Air Line Pilots Association of Korea.
This year, some 50 pilots reportedly left their jobs at Korean Air. Most of the captains have switched to Chinese airlines or are in the process of leaving, whereas cocaptains have moved to domestic low-cost carriers.
"Due to high discrepancies in wages, the captains are increasingly considering moving to foreign airline companies whereas cocaptains, discouraged by delayed promotions, are moving to LCCs," said the Korean Air pilots union in a statement, calling on the company to actively address such issues.
On top of all the shortcomings felt at their companies, some disillusioned Korean Air pilots have chosen to leave the company after witnessing deep-rooted structural and cultural issues at their workplace.
A copilot surnamed Choi, who is leaving the company, chastised Cho Yang-ho, chairman of Korean Air, on Tuesday via an online employee message board for failing to bring changes into the hierarchical corporate culture.
Chairman Cho posted a personal response Thursday, thanking the copilot for his criticisms and vowing to better implement the employees' voices into the company's management.
A continued outflow of Korean pilots into foreign airlines could cause serious sustainability issues for Korea's major airlines, which face personnel shortages of 250 to 300 captains every year, Choi said.
"If Korean captains continue to leave the company, Korean Air may have to resort to hiring foreign captains or scouting captains from low-cost carriers, which could violate Fair Trade Commission laws."