Foreign Pilots Placed On Unpaid Leave In China

News has emerged that China Southern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, as well as a number of other mainland Chinese carriers have been placing foreign pilots on indefinite unpaid leave. This is according to multiple sources and a memo obtained by the South China Morning Post. The action is in response to the suspension of hundreds of flights out of China as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

China Southern has an enormous fleet of over 850 passenger and cargo aircraft. Photo: China Southern

“All foreign pilots, including those who have applied for leave exemption and those who have not, shall start a non-fixed term leave without pay as soon as possible,” – China Southern memo

The memo, obtained by the media, is said to be effective that same day (Tuesday). This is a significant move as China Southern is one of the world’s largest fleets. The airline reportedly has just under 10,000 pilots.


Foreign pilots in China considering other opportunities

The Chinese air travel market has been rapidly expanding. As such, the pay is normally quite generous for foreign pilots working in mainland China. In fact, in recent years foreign pilots have been attracted to the country by offers of lucrative salaries and attractive flying schedules.


Unfortunately, as a result of the coronavirus crisis and the overwhelming amount of flight suspensions, hundreds of foreign pilots are now unnecessary. In fact, some have told the South China Morning Post that they are considering other options and opportunities elsewhere.

Hainan Airlines 787 landing
Hainan Airlines is also removing some pilots from duty. Photo: Hainan Airlines

“It is nice to be home, but like everyone, I have bills to pay, so being home for an indefinite period with no pay is obviously unsustainable.” – Anonymous pilot


China Southern isn’t the only airline taking action. In fact, Xiamen Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Tianjin Airlines and Beijing Capital Airlines (BCA) have also placed its foreign aircrew on unpaid leave, according to multiple sources. Another source reports that Beijing Capital Airlines’ pilots are being offered the opportunity to take a significant pay cut that is in line with their Chinese counterparts. China Eastern is offering unpaid leave to its foreign pilots. However, the airline has not yet made this mandatory.

Foreign pilots are paid substantially more than their Chinese counterparts. Photo: Getty Images


The coronavirus crisis has had a substantial impact on air travel out of and within China. In fact, for the January 23-February 3 period, China Southern canceled over 7,900 flights. Furthermore, Xiamen Air axed 3,287 flights, and Hainan Airlines eliminated 2,967 domestic services. China Eastern’s domestic flights took a hit of 27% while Air China flights were reduced by 20%.

Foreign pilots are among the most expensive employees outside executive airline positions. Therefore, the decision to place them on leave will bring immediate cost savings to Chinese carriers already suffering immensely from the crisis. Hopefully, the Chinese air travel market will rebound after this crisis.

If you were a freshly laid-off pilot in China would you wait out the crisis? Or would you start looking for work elsewhere? Let us know what you would do in the comments.

We have reached out to several Chinese carriers with requests for comment. However, at this time there have been no responses received.


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Gerry S

Easy decision: Apply for work elsewhere. There is no shortage of opportunities for pilots. Airlines though, will have to ensure that their "new" hires stay with them after this coronaepisode is over. China on the other hand will be hamstrung. Again, they will have to hire pilots and may discover… Read more »

Anita Jaitly

Whether southern chuna airlines refunding for the cancelled flights?

Bubba gumpers

I will look elsewhere. It’s not worth the difficult training, simulator checks, medicals. Ridiculous flying procedures and now being furloughed.