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The Green Green Grass of Home

June 22, 2017




The global industry of the airline business is fairly rosy at present, and shows growth rarely seen in this sector. Likewise, the incongruous grouping of countries that is referred to as BRICS is generally steaming along. 

Except us, of course. What little steam we have left right now is firmly directing us straight towards our self-made iceberg, while the bridge is empty. The immediate future is going to be interesting, to say the least.

We have, as of a few days ago, entered another technical recession, although we are pretty much all aware that this could have been prevented had basic sanity prevailed with our ‘leadership’.

The consequences will be dire, although, having said that, my not-so-little flight school is at its busiest since I started it nine years ago. From a business point of view, this is certainly not the norm, and I rely almost exclusively on those Dollars brought in from the Middle East and Asia. The local basic training market has almost flat lined as money dries up.

Of course, these issues add a fair weight to the ‘push’ factor that has seen many professionals and significant numbers of experienced aircrew leave our shores – with many more to follow.

It is common knowledge that the left seat of hundreds of commercial airliners is calling anyone that may fit the description of ‘experienced Captain’, and that definition seems to be altered almost weekly.

Is the grass greener? Or is ours misleadingly green due to the amount of manure being flung about? Is our lifestyle in South Africa so fantastic that it’s worth putting up with the world’s most bizarre political environment?

A quick glance around confirms the direction of the global pilot marketplace – and it is far from peaking at present. I have counted in excess of 2,000 positions presently advertised, of which the majority are for Direct Entry Captain (DEC) from a variety of operators.

The present definition of experienced Captain is a minimum total time of 3,000 hours, of which 2,000 must be on jet transport aircraft, 1,000 hours on type (typically A320 or Boeing 738), and 500 hours command on type.

It’s those last two requirements that snooker a lot of aspiring individuals, as, generally speaking, if you have command on an A320, you’re unlikely to abandon ship for another operator with such relatively low time. Unless of course, the new company is making offers awash with USD.

By comparison, if I take stock of my own logbook versus age, I see around 16,500 hours total time, with 9,000 on Airbus and 2,500 command on the A320. As I’m now the wrong side of 45, the slow progression of spending 20 years at a ‘legacy’ carrier is apparent. Similarly, if I was to directly compare remuneration packages, I’m seriously on the wrong side of the drag curve in this regard.

The most eye-watering deal on offer right now has to be with the Hainan Group in China. The advertised package is around USD481,000 per annum – after tax. That is more than four times my present lot in life. I should be off like a scalded cat, without even taking the time to return my tatty uniform and access permit.

But, it’s worth taking a closer look at what actually transpires at present with these too-good-to-be-true deals.

I must state that I am biased against the notion of living in China as an ex-pat, simply because I’ve been there a few times, and had lengthy discussions with those who have spent more than a few days at a time there.

I loved our Beijing flights while they lasted – each trip would put around 32 hours in the logbook, and the shopping, food and sight-seeing was fantastic. The best part, however, was that after three days after arriving we would be going home.

Hong Kong, which is certainly not China, is somewhat different, but still not my permanent concept of home. So, from starting at a point of hating the place, it’s downhill from here.

Before we get around to the money, you have to consider the process involved to be accepted into ‘the system’. You first have to establish a rapport with one of the several agencies that are contracted to the various airlines. This is, in essence, contracting with the state, as the government runs all airlines in one form or another. For example, new aircraft are ordered by the state, according to their perceived master plan for the country, and these are dished out to the various carriers as required by their place in the greater scheme of things.

This in turn dictates the crew numbers – flight deck, cabin and technical staff. Those locals who have made it through the system to command are obviously first in line, and training, checking and management positions beckon. This leaves a gap between First Officers and regular commanders, which is generally filled by the ex-pat contingent.

Once ‘signed up’ with the agency of choice, the next step is the interview, and more tellingly, the simulator check ride. I have it from several sources that this is a check from the very gates of hell itself. Box ticking hell. Deviation from any situation, regardless of reason, means the box cannot be ticked. It amounts to blinding adherence to their SOP, to the detriment of anything else. Do not exceed the downwind leg of a visual approach by a single second, or dare to read the before start checklist without your shoulder harnesses fastened. That sort of non-compliance is an instant fail. These are the acknowledged issues to prepare for, while some aspects may be evaluated ‘solo’ for type-rated crew.

Due to the culture within some operators in that part of the world, the Captain is expected to be able to operate as a one-man band in the most dire situations. Crew Resource Management (CRM) is alive and well, but in a very different form.

As I can attest to, the A320 is a lovely aircraft when all is going well. When things start falling apart, various systems of this highly automated aircraft start to abandon ship to the point of serious crew overload.

This may entail having no autopilots or auto thrust, being down to one hydraulic system resulting in no ailerons and one elevator, in a tropical cyclone, with smoke in the cabin and an utterly unresponsive right-hand man.

Essentially, the check supposedly calls for steadily increasing pressure to determine the breaking point of the individual. Should said point be reached beyond a certain specified stress level, the check is successful. Before said point, you are considered to not have The Right Stuff.

From here, you progress to the medical and other associated processes, and should this similarly stringent check prove your superman status, then contracts can be signed and the realities of the package start to kick in.

A certain offer indicates around US$312,000 per annum, which is broken up as follows:

US$19,800 ‘basic’ or actual monthly cash, with ‘local tax taken care of’, which means the government doesn’t ask for anything.

The additional allowances, such as housing, bonus, transport and so on depend on what sort of contract you choose. The most lucrative is, of course, the ‘full time’ contract with fixed leave, as you would operate with a traditional full-time employer. This means you become a resident for the duration of the contract. Good luck to your family with that one. Then there is the safety bonus, which attempts to deliver airmanship via financial reward or punishment.

The commuting contracts would appeal to most ex-pats, although immediately this reduces your loot considerably. Typically on offer is six weeks on, two weeks off; four weeks on, two weeks off and various other combinations.

When at work, you are expected to deliver that pound of flesh consistently. This seems to revolve around 75 hard flying hours monthly, being the overtime threshold (900 hours per annum), and then, generally, around US$300 per hour is paid in addition.

Operating in the 80 to 90 hard hour bracket monthly is pretty damn hard work, and appears to be the global expectation.

There are a lot of gripes to be read about these contracts on the interweb, but if we all took everything that we read literally, we would never get out of bed. These include aspects such as expectations for fleet upgrade (B738 to B787) that do not materialise, or drawn out (up to a year) training before being released to line flying and receiving the full salary. 

There will always be many sides to any story, but I do suspect the most bleating is from either not reading the fine print, to not being able to conform to the culture of strict SOP trumping common sense and airmanship.

It appears the Chinese aviation industry is growing at a stratospheric rate, and the contracts and their terms and conditions are changing almost weekly. The culture of waving a big stick will have to start changing as the reality of crewing aircraft with us, the so-called experienced aircrew, are realised to be a diminishing resource.

As I complete this article at FL390 over western Tanzania, watching a spectacular sunset to my left, I’ve decided that I’ll stay firmly put until the bubble bursts or sanity prevails with working conditions.

In the meantime, the activities at my flight school will keep me busy outside of my 70 hard hour month, and I shall observe the market keenly as things steadily get even better.

When I do allow myself time off between these two obligations, I can still comfortably afford to pay for my own green grass to be cut while I sip that cold one on my patio, under a crystal-clear blue South African winter sky.



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