Are Chinese Pilots Indentured Servants, and Would You Want to Fly With One That Is?

When we talk about airlines mistreating their employees, we usually think about allegations of how oneworld member and American Airlines partner Qatar Airways’ flight attendants are treated.

It’s rare that we’d even entertain the notion of pilots being treated as anything less than Skygods — in some measure we had US Airways acquire American Airlines because American’s pilots decided that they wouldn’t work with CEO Tom Horton; he had to go. At Kuwait Airways it was literally two years after a pilot invited a porn star to take the controls that the pilot was even suspended.

And yet in China there are allegations of indentured servitude of pilots, because in the nation’s growing aviation industry they simply don’t have enough pilots and don’t want to let go of those they do have.

Skyteam member – and Delta partner – China Southern apparently refuses to honor the resignation of a pilot who wanted to fly for another airline despite a court order telling them to do so.

Liu, dressed in his dark uniform and wearing a red sash over his right shoulder, wants the airline to accept his resignation, which he tendered July 7 of last year.

The pilot, in his 30s, has flown for the carrier for seven years. He first worked for Beijing Airlines, which was later acquired by China Southern.

A Chinese court ordered China Southern, the world’s sixth-largest airline as measured by passengers carried, to release Liu from employment, but the company, according to Beijing Youth Daily, refused.

China Southern is alleged to have first insisted on recouping the pilot’s training costs (remember, he was trained by a predecessor airline and has already flown for them 7 years). When the new airline this pilot was going to fly for offered to pay, China Southern still refused.

The Guangzhou-based airline offered the pilot that if he flew “for the high season” that he could go. So he did that. And the airline still wouldn’t release him.

The situation isn’t an isolated one in China, it seems:

Zhang Qihui, an expert on Chinese aviation law, told the Beijing Youth Daily that every year between 100 and 200 pilots face the same situation as Liu as they try to switch employers.

Usually a growing economy ultimately leads to improved working conditions, although in this case it could be that a cratering Chinese economy makes the pilots better off — at least allowed to leave their employer, since they won’t have a shortage of pilots — though it may mean other airlines lack the demand for their services.

I rarely have as much sympathy for pilots as I do for other airline work groups. But China may force me to rethink that presumption. At a minimum I want content pilots, rather than pilots who feel trapped by circumstances, operating the aircraft that I fly in as a passenger.

(HT: @JoeSentMe)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. You accidentally (probably) spelled “the” as “thee” in the second to last paragraph.
    Besides that, great story (but not for Liu).

  2. Pilot was suspended because the porn star played with the planes controls. No problems if she had played with his joystick.

  3. This only makes sense to me if he was under contract but it doesn’t seem like he was. I guess in China you’re not allowed to just quit your job?

  4. Slight OT but Chinese airlines really don’t treat their crew any better than QR does. On several occasions I’ve personally witnessed that the cockpit/cabin crew members were made to surrender their passports to the purser/designated keeper right after immigration control on international trips. One can only imagine this is to prevent them from becoming a flight risk themselves.

  5. In China, small airlines and corporate operators pay and treat their pilots better than the major airlines, because they have to, to attract pilots. In the U.S., the major airlines are still considered by pilots to be more desirable than small airlines. Experienced regional pilots take large paycuts to become new hires at the majors. Right now regional airlines are unable to staff profitable flights, because they are losing pilots, can’t find pilots, and they can’t raise pay because they fly under tight contracts with the major airlines. When those contracts come up for negotiation, I expect the regional airlines will demand and get much more money, and offer much larger bonuses and pay to attract pilots.

    Pilots at the major airlines have invested a decade or more in gaining seniority which equates to better pay and conditions. The seniority system basically locks a pilot into one airline, their careers lack portability that most professions have. Moving to another airline starts them over at food-stamp wages and the least desirable equipment and schedule. Major airline unions are unable to fight for any improvements, as the Railway Labor Act effectively prohibits any form of work slowdown. Under the RLA the airlines can keep unions working under an expired contract indefinitely, and usually do, so expect the current contracts, negotiated in bankruptcy, to be in place into the next decade at the major airlines.

    All of this adds up to growing discontent and frustration in cockpits at major U.S. airlines. That frustration can be seen in countless blogs and posts online, which young people read when they consider flying as a career. Airline pilots are not a happy bunch. Some of the older pilots earn spectacular pay in their last years, but most pilots don’t earn a high pay, many earn little, and they pay a heavy price for it. It can be a tough life: lots of holidays and weekends away from home, night and foul weather flying, angry customers, constantly changing rules, high stress, layoffs and bankruptcies, and always the threat of losing their career for relatively minor illness or error.

    If this all sounds negative, it is, and that is why the profession is not attracting nearly enough qualified young people to staff our cockpits. The industry solution is to propose a lower level of pilot to fill the right seats, as is now legal in most of the world, the MPL pilot. Another solution is automation, DARPA is well ahead of this shortage with their ALIAS program. They have several companies ready with robots capable of replacing the right seat in airliners. Drones are the big story for replacing pilots, they already have at the world’s biggest producer of pilots, the U.S. military. These solutions of course do nothing for attracting young people to a dying profession.

    Despite nearly 50 years involved in military and commercial aviation, and decades in machine automation, I don’t have a perfect solution to this problem. It is going to go from problem to crisis soon, and nobody has a good solution. The airline industry is being left to solve the problem that they have created. They will continue to do what is most profitable, short term, for themselves, that is how they view their responsibilities. Maximizing shareholder returns is in direct conflict with maximizing the long-term health of the airline industry, and the nation’s economy. Unless the airline industry is forced to change and soon, we are going to have painful consequences to live with for many years.

  6. In China, majority of the pilots had their training paid by the airlines they work for, i.e. airlines paid for all their tuition/fees/T&E while they were training to become licensed pilots. In return for the significant out-of-pocket expense, the current model requires the trainees to sign contracts with airlines pretty much promising a lifelong tenure (until retirement age). A lot of young people entered into this arrangement fully knowing the constraints, but changed their minds later in their career when they find better jobs/opportunities elsewhere. This has caused a lot of tension between pilots and airlines in the recent years.

    In 2008, multiple China Eastern Airlines pilots refused to land the planes they were flying at the destination airports, instead they flew the planes back to origin airports, as a way to protest to the airline. This delayed several hundreds of passengers and caused tremendous controversies.

    In response to the tensions and issues related to the current model of pilot training, some airlines (China Southern Airlines being one of them) started to recruit “self-funded” trainees, who pay for their training themselves and enter into a shorter contract. The number of private flights schools is also increasing. In my opinion, it’ll still be a while before the landscape completely turns around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *