Want to earn $300,000 tax free? Try flying a plane in China

What are the world's best airlines?
What are the world's best airlines?

Chinese airlines are offering huge pay packages to tempt foreign pilots as demand for air travel balloons.

Some carriers are advertising salaries of more than $300,000 a year -- and they say they'll cover the tax bill, too.

"There's not enough pilots in the world to fill the demand," said Dave Ross, the CEO of Wasinc International, a firm that finds pilots for Chinese airlines. "This is why the pay keeps going higher."

China will need between 4,000 and 5,000 new airline pilots every year for the next two decades, analysts estimate. Chinese airlines are among the fastest growing on the planet -- at home and abroad -- and they're the biggest buyers of jetliners from Airbus (EADSF) and Boeing (BA).

Training schools in China aren't churning out enough pilots to keep up with the industry's meteoric growth, and there's an acute shortage of experienced captains.

Related: China to spend $1 trillion on nearly 7,000 new aircraft

The airlines' rich offers have attracted industry veterans from all around the globe.

"Before I was flying anywhere from 80-100 hours a month. Here, I only fly 50 for pretty much three times the pay," said Jeff Graham. He left a job with cargo airline Southern Air in San Antonio, Texas, last year to work for a carrier in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

For Fernando, a former captain for a top Mexican airline, the economics of moving to China were even more compelling. He says he's set to make five or six times as much money at a carrier in the city of Chengdu.

jeff graham china pilot

"There were a couple of other options in Asia, but the pay -- the best rate now -- is in China," said Fernando, who declined to be identified by his full name because he didn't have permission from the airline to speak publicly. He and his wife moved to Chengdu in August, and he recently finished his training.

Western pilots have long chased the financial incentives that come with hot demand for their skills and experience.

Related: Boeing eyes China focus with new sales chief

Veteran aviators who once flew for U.S. and European airlines upped sticks previously for Middle Eastern carriers. Some of those same pilots are now headed from Dubai to China, according to one Boeing 777 pilot who has followed the money east.

Multiple ads from Chinese airlines on recruitment sites like Wasinc offer monthly salaries of more than $25,000 (with tax paid) for captains.

One from Chengdu Airlines boasts that it offers the "highest pay in China" at $25,800 a month with a $36,000 bonus for completing a three-year contract.

chengdu airlines comac ARJ21-700
Chengdu Airlines says it offers the "highest pay in China" for pilots at $25,800 a month.

"In China, pilots are always in short supply," said Guo Jing, a spokesperson for the airline. "And we offer high salaries because if we don't, nobody will come."

The sums Chengdu and others are willing to pay compare with an average monthly salary of $17,400 for the most senior pilots at major U.S. carriers like United (UAL) and Delta (DAL), according to aviation consultancy Kit Darby.

Related: Airbus offers a peek at its flying taxi

Some top U.S. airlines have recently granted big pay raises as part of new labor agreements, and others are under pressure to do the same. Pilots at some regional carriers can earn less than $25,000 per year, according to the Air Line Pilots Association, International.

Low pay and changes in rules governing pilot flight hours have caused an acute pilot shortage among those smaller carriers in the U.S.

Graham says it would have taken him "another 10 or 15 years" in the U.S. to match what he makes now in China.

dave ross pilot recruiter

Despite the head-turning sums, Chinese airlines are still struggling to find enough foreign pilots to match their shiny new jet fleets.

"Their view is, 'We're paying very good money, keep sending us more candidates,'" said Liz Loveridge, North East Asia director for Rishworth Aviation, which recruits pilots. "But we may have a limited number of candidates who will be interested."

Issues such as China's heavy bureaucracy and nasty pollution have prompted some potential candidates to think twice, according to recruiters.

Related: Singapore Airlines shops for world's longest jet

And it can be a long haul from being offered a job to getting the first pay check. The process of getting a Chinese pilot's license -- from putting in the application, traveling to China for a written test and exhaustive medical evaluations, and then returning once more for a test flight -- took Graham about a year, he says.

Such hurdles test how much foreign pilots are willing to go through to land fat salaries in China.

"If you're coming here strictly for a pay check, you're probably not going to be here very long," said Doug Ward, an American who's been flying planes in China for more than seven years. He also acts as a representative for the pilots Wasinc has recruited.

Both he and Graham say they've enjoyed the experience of living in a different culture and the broader horizons it offers for their children.

"We've only been here a year, but if it continues with this path, I'd like to stay as long as I could," Graham said. "I wouldn't mind staying 10 to 12 years."

-- Jon Ostrower and Nanlin Fang contributed to this report.

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