SHANGHAI, China - If American travelers thought they had it bad these days, consider what happened to passengers on 18 China Eastern flights recently.
The planes took off from Kunming airport in southern China. Some turned around in mid-air. Others reached their destinations, but without letting passengers off; then the jets flew back to Kunming. The weather wasn't an issue, nor was mechanical trouble, investigators said. Rather, it was a collective act of defiance by pilots unhappy about their pay, schedules and lack of rest, and lifetime contracts that they can break only by paying a fortune.
China's Civil Aviation Administration fined the Shanghai-based carrier, which flew 39 million passengers last year, about $215,000 and took away some of its domestic routes. But the agency didn't address the underlying problem: an airline industry struggling to meet travel demand with a shortage of pilots and outdated rules and management.
Fueled by the nation's economic growth and rising wealth, China's airlines flew 185 million passengers last year, up 34 percent from two years earlier. That's about one-quarter of U.S. passenger traffic. Chinese carriers are buying hundreds of new aircraft but are laboring to find pilots.
"The current situation is, you need all the pilots to fly to meet the demand," said Tian Baohua, president of the Beijing-based Civil Aviation Management Institute of China.
The turmoil couldn't have come at a worse time. With the Summer Olympics in Beijing nearing and 2 million visitors expected for the games, demand for air travel probably will accelerate. China has built up a respectable safety record in recent years, but the latest incidents have left fliers nervous.
"Taking the airplane seems to be a little scary to me," said Xi Ping, vice president of an electronics company in Shanghai, who flies several times a month. "I always have safety concerns for airplane trips, and these days I even have to worry about whether the pilots are in a good mood. ... If pilots returned flights last time [in Kunming], I wonder next time whether they would do something worse."
The typical captain of a state-owned airline such as China Eastern makes about $45,000 a year and co-pilots half that. By Chinese standards, that's good money. But comparable aviators at China's private airlines can earn at least 50 percent more.
More than pay, many pilots say their biggest beef is a punishing work schedule.
Under Chinese regulations, airlines are supposed to give pilots two consecutive days of rest a week. But pilots say managers routinely work them six days a week and deny them other time off, which they argue leads to fatigue and raising safety concerns.
"In one seven-month period, I had not even one successive 48 hours off," said a 35-year-old China Eastern captain surnamed Wu. The 13-year veteran, who works out of Hebei in northern China, wouldn't provide his full name, saying he was worried about company reprisal.
While he doesn't condone what his colleagues did in Kunming on March 31 and April 1, Wu says he understands their feelings. "My back and waist often hurt these days," he said. He recently tendered his resignation out of frustration about his own schedule.
China Eastern, one of the nation's big three carriers, along with Air China and China Southern, declined to comment.
Other airlines are in similar straits. In mid-March, 40 Shanghai Airlines captains asked for sick leave simultaneously. Two weeks later, 11 East Star Airlines' captains did the same.
Approximately 200 pilots, including about 70 at China Eastern, have taken steps to end labor contracts with their employers. That's a fraction of the more than 10,000 pilots in China, but many others would consider quitting or changing carriers if they could afford it.
Most signed lifetime contracts with airlines, which traditionally have footed the bill for pilot school and training. That can run to $100,000 per person. Reluctant to let their investments go, airlines are demanding that pilots pay as much as $1 million to leave, says Zhang Qihuai, an attorney at Beijing Lanpeng Law Firm, which represents 50 pilots who have sought arbitration or filed suits against eight airlines. Few have found relief from the courts or aviation authorities.
Analysts fault airlines and the government for letting things get out of hand.
"All that the airlines thought about was increasing planes. Companies that sell planes do not provide pilots with them," said Tian of the government-affiliated aviation management center. "The government should restrict the number of new aircraft."
Zhang said it's unreasonable to restrict the mobility of pilots in a market economy. Many airlines, he says, operate as if China was still a planned economy, in which employees were expected to stay with an enterprise their entire lives.
Don Lee writes for the Los Angeles Times.