In China, if quit your job as an airline pilot, you could end up owing your former employer more than $102,000. China’s carriers are struggling to hold onto their crews as demand for air travel creates opportunities for pilots worldwide. Now, Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines, China’s largest carriers, have taken to enforcing lifetime crew contracts. And a Chinese government regulation issued in May of 2006 designed to prevent bidding wars for experienced pilots penalizes those pilots who seek opportunity abroad by allowing airlines to demand compensation for lost staff. “Everyone should follow the rules,” Chen Feng, chairman of Grand China Air, told Bloomberg news. “If someone insists on leaving, he should pay the price.” The situation has drawn attention from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, which views the practice as unrelated to reality and almost like slavery. Pilots in China have begun their own work condition protests — in March and April, crews turned around 21 flights mid-route. Others have staged hunger strikes.
As high demand in China for a limited supply of pilots continues to push salaries higher, Chen Jianguo, who is fighting his case in the courts, says, “No matter how much I earn, I should have the basic right to quit or give up the earnings.” For now, the government and the Chinese airlines are trying to make sure he, and other pilots who might aspire to be like him, has the requirement to pay his former employer, as well.