Vietnam AviationWith the Asia-Pacific airline industry poised for yet further solid growth in 2013, much attention has been paid to the wealth of job offers available to foreign pilots. Centred primarily on China and the burgeoning ASEAN member states led by Indonesia, airlines continue to draw foreign aircrew with the attractive remuneration packages routinely offered. However, often slipping under the radar for pilots – Vietnam commands a sizable base of expat pilots set to expand as the country takes on initiatives to boost its aviation sector over the coming months. Conducive to the country’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. Given these circumstances and the potential for growth, we ask what the Vietnamese market holds in store for foreign pilots.

For a nation with a relatively small landmass, Vietnamese airlines employ close to 670 pilots, 865 technical staff and over 2,000 flight attendants dispersed among the nation’s five major carriers. However, owing to long-running training deficiencies and a shortage of highly experienced personnel, a considerable portion of these numbers continue to be sourced from abroad. Indeed, 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 accorded to Air Mekong, 50 to VietJet Air and 58 with Jetstar Pacific Airlines – constituting close to 95 percent of total aircrew for the latter.

Ensuing to the expansion plans of the nation’s largest carrier, Vietnam Airlines, will be an increase of its fleet number to 115 as well as broadening of the pilot base to 1,200 over the next two years. In addition, VietJet Air has sought new destinations in Korea and South-East Asia for which to spread its wings, taking advantage of the accelerating demand for budget air travel to and from Vietnam.

‘Perhaps interesting to note – is that despite sweeping improvements to the output of local flight training schools, there remains a heavy dependence on foreign crew. In the preliminary growth plans of Vietnam Airlines, the company reports that up to a quarter of new pilots will be expats. This contributes quite considerably to company expenditure, with salaries for foreign crew averaging around US$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. Even though pilot wages account for the second largest expense of Vietnamese carriers, it has proven difficult to attract the critical number demanded as competition for qualified pilots remains high. Taken comparatively, the remuneration packages awarded to expat crew can range anywhere between two to eight times that of their local counterparts,’ comments the CEO of, Skaiste Knyzaite.

The sizable outlay and input costs for airlines in Vietnam have measured difficult times for a number of carriers. As recently as this week, Air Mekong have announced the suspension of air services pending a complete change in their fleet structure. According to the airline, central to the company’s financial problems was the less than ideal fleet decision, compounded by rising fuel and staffing expenditures. Furthermore, the culmination of unresolved debt obligations for Indochina Airlines led to their untimely demise in 2009, after only a year in operation. While profitability struggles are evident, the same situation does not apply for the low cost carrier, VietJet Air, which continues to operate aircraft at maximum utilisation levels while employing a largely expat pilot base.

S. Knyzaite, the CEO of states that, ‘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. While this has gone far in solving the staffing issues of Vietnamese carriers, there have been a handful of cases whereby pilots have been left in less than favourable circumstances. This may include anything from contractual non-compliance of the airline, unjust treatment on the job or delays over salary remittance. The problem is magnified when dealing with unscrupulous recruitment agencies that are either slow to mediate between issues or fail to respond entirely. It is therefore fitting that pilots would acquaint themselves with their employment agency in order to ensure that tangible support is offered throughout the full length of the contract.’

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