What’s a disgruntled Chinese airline pilot supposed to do?

On March 31 and April 1, eighteen (some reports say seventeen) China Eastern flights departed Kunming with passengers, baggage, and cargo, flew around in circles, and then landed … in Kunming, leaving the passengers stranded and furious.

[UPDATE 4/8: Xinhua now reports that twenty-one flights were turned around.]

Now, what on earth could drive a perfectly well-trained pilot to do such a thing?

First, the circumstances:

Chinese airlines and pilots are currently involved in a contract dispute. And by airlines, I mean all of the airlines. And by all of the airlines, I mean the Chinese government – which has an ownership interest in the ones involved in this mess. Anyway, collectively, the airlines are asking Chinese pilots to sign 99-year contracts that include RMB 2.1 million (US$300,000) automatic payments if the pilot breaks the agreement (to compensate for the cost of pilot training). With no union – or court – to protect them, the pilots are basically faced with either signing the draconian contracts, or quitting.

On top of that, the pilots are the unwitting victims of a standoff between China Eastern, and the Yunnan Provincial government, which is trying to acquire the Yunnan-based operations of China Eastern. Last month, after its final offer to China Eastern was spurned, Yunnan canceled a preferential tax rate that applied to China Eastern’s pilots (a rate they enjoy throughout China), thus effectively lowering their income below (Chinese) industry averages. And there was pretty much nothing that the Yunnan-based pilots could do about that one, either [this side of the story comes from a subscriber-only story from the SCMP].

I am not the first person to observe that Chinese law provides few legal, civil avenues of protest or redress when an individual or interest group has a complaint against the government (see: Tibet; Maglev; medical malpractice, etc etc etc). Obviously, in the absence of such avenues, aggrieved parties have one of two options: shut up, or do something illegal (and often spectacular).

But, to be fair, let’s ask: Was there a realistic legal option for the pilots?

In developed countries with real labor unions, the pilots would file a grievance against the airlines for upending settled contracts. In effect, they would invoke their right of collective bargaining against the collective force of the airlines, and either quash the new contracts provisions, or at least stall them until they could be modified in another negotiation. But the All China Federation of Trade Unions, though occasionally effective, isn’t really designed or inclined to protect high-paid employees in a dispute with various levels of the Chinese government (in a classic SCMP story that I can no longer find in the archives, a Chinese labor organizer explained the benefits of unionization to foreign employers in China: “Chinese unions are different from unions overseas. In China, we won’t strike … There won’t be any trouble if your workers join.“).

Alternatively, one might interpret the new 99-year contract provisions as a fairly blatant violation of China’s new labor law (sounds that way to me, at least). But whether it is, or not, seems a moot question when the businesses in question are closely held state-owned enterprises (with deep military ties). I may be wrong on this, but I seriously doubt that there’s a labor regulator in China willing to stand up to the collective will of the airlines (or, by extension, a court that would rule in favor of the pilots … if they could manage to get to a court).

Now, I’m not making excuses for what the pilots did, but let’s take a look at the situation from their point of view: current ownership is demanding a 99-year unbreakable contract at the same time that their prospective new owner has taken steps to slash already below-market wages; they don’t have a union, and trying to form one will likely land them in the gulag; and even if you could figure out who to sue, it’s unlikely that any Chinese court is going to be interested in groundbreaking class-action lawsuits on behalf of a group of plaintiffs with a grudge against several large state-owned enterprises. And quitting China Eastern for another airline is hopeless – ownership is the same across the industry (at some level), and nobody wants to hire a troublemaker from another carrier

So, I ask again, what’s a pilot with no legal options supposed to do?

According to the South China Morning Post, the pilots had been conspiring in online chat rooms to pull off the Kunming Fly-Around for the better part of several weeks. It took some gumption, that’s for sure. Whether or not it achieves anything is anybody’s guess. But if the goal was to raise the profile of the peculiar dilemma facing Chinese airline pilots, then it succeeded wildly, and I’d bet that somebody in Beijing is making plans to deal with it, somehow, someway, including meeting some of the pilot demands so that nobody decides to stage a similar stunt over, say, Beijing in August (reports to the effect that the airline is blaming the fly-arounds on bad weather suggest that something’s being brokered to save somebody’s skin – and face).

Of course, the long-term solution (neglecting, for the moment, ninety-nine year contracts) is some means by which aggrieved groups in China can seek legal redress – or, at a minimum, vent their fury – in non-criminal manners. This month, at least, that seems to be a project worth looking into.


  1. Its no surprise that the state wants to keep the pilots groups at bay; airlines are a foreign exchange cash cow. After all, what other industry can you have someone pay you, say, 2000 US dollars for a ticket(or even better, 2000 euros) and then, after lopping off fuel costs and parts (which are paid in said forex), you can then turnaround and pay your cabin crews with what amounts to Monopoly money, leaving you with the rest.

  2. I know that contract conditions for foreign pilots have improved out of site recently due to the demand for pilots. I would be interested to know if they have improved for the local pilots as well?

  3. Good for those guys. It’s not easy to stand up to management, even more difficult to stand up agains a government, and face jail. That show’s bravery, and I hope ALPA can help

Comments are closed.