Vietnam faces pilot shortage, looks abroad

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Experts warn of illegitimate aviation recruitment agencies as Vietnam faces a worsening shortage of pilots

A VietJet Air aircraft at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City. Experts have forecast rising demand for foreign pilots in Vietnam. 

Vietnam is running short on qualified airplane pilots, but its airlines do not have enough money and resources to continuing hiring them from abroad.

According to AviationCV, a Lithuania-based company that supplies pilots around the world, Vietnam's airline industry is poised for expansion in 2013.

"[Due to Vietnam's] rising middle class, a greater share of the population now has the discretionary income to travel abroad, paving the way for a number of new airlines concentrated largely in the low-cost segment," it said.

But airlines in Vietnam are finding it difficult to recruit pilots despite the fact that their wages are the second highest business cost for after fuel. It is not easy for them to recruit pilots because bigger carriers offer higher salaries.

Aviation experts said that airlines in Vietnam pay foreign pilots piloting Airbus A320 aircraft up to US$12,000 per month depending on their experience. The salary is just $2,000 for a Vietnamese pilot, although locals get their training paid for by the airline.

Vietnam's per capita income is around $1,300.

Owing to long-running training deficiencies and a shortage of highly experienced personnel, a considerable portion of pilots in Vietnam continue to be sourced from abroad.

According to AviationCV, of the 800 pilots currently filling the ranks in the nation's flag carrier, Vietnam Airlines, 360 are non-Vietnamese nationals.

"The same conditions prevail elsewhere, with up to 40 foreign pilots working at Air Mekong, 50 at VietJet Air, and 58 at Jetstar Pacific Airlines, where they constitute close to 95 percent of total air crew," according to the AviationCV press release.

Demand for pilots is increasing with Vietnam Airlines, the country's largest carrier, having recently announced plans to increase its fleet number to 115 as well as broaden its pilot base to 1,200 over the next two years.

In addition, VietJet Air has sought new destinations in South Korea and Southeast Asia, taking advantage of the accelerating demand for budget air travel to and from Vietnam.

The 2012 Boeing's Pilot & Technician Outlook projected that 51,500 pilots and 67,400 technicians would be needed in Southeast Asia over the next two decades.

"In many regions of the world, our customers are facing recruitment challenges due to pilot and technician shortages," Bob Belllitto, the global sales director of Boeing Flight Services, told Vietweek.

"The need is particularly great in the Asia Pacific region, where surging economies are driving travel demand."

Actually, the Asia Pacific aviation sector was particularly low on pilots in 2011 when some carriers had to cut flights and ground new planes due to the shortfall.

The region needs more than 180,000 in extra pilots and almost 250,000 new technicians over the next two decades to meet demand, according to a statement by issued by Boeing in September 2011, when there were about 60,000 pilots and 46,000 technicians in the region.

Roei Ganzarski, chief customer officer of Boeing's flight services unit, told AFP that some airlines have grounded flights or reduced flights due to the shortage. He did not name any carriers but said countries affected by the shortfall included India, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Shortages were also happening in other regions, and the global aviation sector needed more than one million pilots and technicians by 2030, but tight supply was most acute in Asia, he said.

Meanwhile, Skaiste Knyzaite, CEO of AviationCV, said pilots are needed in Asia more than anywhere else in the world.

"Considering the fluctuating situation in Europe and the US, where some airlines face bankruptcy or restructuring issues, Vietnam, China and some other Asian countries are sure to be an attractive destination for foreign pilots," Knyzaite told Vietweek.

She said that Vietnam Airlines has reported that up to a quarter of its new pilots will be foreigners.

"This contributes quite considerably to company expenditure, with salaries for foreign crew averaging around $10,000 per month for a single pilot. Engineer salaries also deviate little from this sum, with foreign personnel commanding no less than $7,000 upon hiring," she said.

Even though pilot wages account for the second largest expense of Vietnamese carriers, it has been difficult to attract enough as competition for qualified pilots remains high.

Knyzaite warned that increasing demand would prompt several unexpected consequences.

"With the drive for a greater number of expat pilots in the country, many airlines have consulted the services of a number of aviation recruitment agencies"¦ [There are] unscrupulous recruitment agencies that are either slow to mediate between issues or fail to respond entirely," she said.

In 2011, the Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam (CAAV) found Vietnam Airlines breaking its own procedures and regulations by recruiting a foreign pilot who did not satisfy requirements.

An inspection of the carrier's recruitment methods was launched after controversy erupted over its hiring of South Korean pilot Kim Tae Hun, who had forged documents about his flying experience.

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