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Better benefits and working conditions are needed to keep pilots in Taiwan

Better benefits and working conditions are needed to keep pilots in Taiwan

The crash of TransAsia Airlines Flight GE235 February 4, the airline’s second major accident in less than seven months, has drawn attention to a festering problem in the domestic aviation industry – a critical shortage of pilots to fly the aircraft of Taiwan’s airlines. Experts point to one ongoing factor in this development: the siphoning-away of pilots with thousands of hours of experience by airlines in larger or more lucrative markets, primarily China but also South Korea and the Middle East.

China is naturally the immediate cause of concern. Packing a flight bag and moving to China is a practically seamless transition for most pilots. The lingua franca up in the air is English, but being able to speak Mandarin Chinese or local dialects is also an advantage, not to mention the convenience of similar cultural backgrounds. In addition, the recent hiring-away of ten pilots from TransAsia by Sichuan Airlines was a natural – the airline flies the same Airbus aircraft that TransAsia does, making it easy for pilots from Taiwan to slip into a pilot’s or co-pilot’s seat after a minimum of training.

And the lure of the lucre is also there. The average monthly salary for experienced pilots at Taiwanese airlines is about NT$200,000, while airlines in China may offer up to NT$350,000 or even NT$450,000 per month. Some Chinese airlines also offer housing subsidies on top of hefty salaries.

In addition, regulations in China make life easier for pilots than in Taiwan. When typhoons approach an area in China commercial air traffic is grounded, doing away with the weather factor that was a primary cause in last July’s crash of a TransAsia ATR in Penghu. Moreover, pilots in China do not have to face the draining prospect of so-called “red eye” flights which begin after nightfall or before dawn and can disrupt sleeping patterns and cause fatigue. Given all those advantages, it is hard to fault pilots for bailing on Taiwanese airlines, turning them into little more than flying academies to churn out pilots for airlines in other markets.

The immediate result of poaching actions like Sichuan Airlines’ haul of ten pilots from TransAsia is that pilots flying routes in Taiwan may be forced to double up to make up for the loss of qualified hands. The loss of so many pilots at once put great pressure on TransAsia to maintain its flight schedule, a problem that still lingers. The pilot of flight GE235, Liao Chien-tsung, was making his third flight in one stretch when the crash occurred, and one legislator has charged that Liao was also "very, very inexperienced." Liao had already made one flight from Taipei to Kinmen and back to Taipei, then flew for a third time that Wednesday morning. Had there been no problems other than engine trouble the incident might have been avoided. But overwork and fatigue are part of the human factor that is listed along with weather and mechanical problems as the three main causes of aviation accidents.

Other niggling questions remain about Flight GE235. The ATR is designed to be able to take off and climb at a five-degree angle on only one engine if the other fails. Thus the pilots should have been able to gain enough altitude to return to Songshan Airport for an inspection and any necessary repairs. This has given rise to speculation that other factors may have been at play – either a problem with the second engine, or confusion over which engine was experiencing difficulties.

TransAsia is not the only airline in Taiwan flying ATRs, but it has experienced the most problems with the aircraft. On January 30, 1995, a TransAsia ATR 72 hit a mountain near Linkou as it was approaching Songshan Airport on a night flight, killing all four persons aboard. The plane should have been at an altitude of 2500 feet but hit a mountain at an elevation of only 1100 feet.

On December 21, 2002, a TransAsia ATR 72-200 cargo aircraft crashed southwest of Penghu during a flight from Taipei to Macau, killing two pilots. The plane encountered severe icing and it was later determined that the pilots did not take appropriate measures in response.

Then just last year the airline experienced its worst accident in the crash of an ATR 72-500, with the loss of 48 lives, on a flight from Kaohsiung to Penghu after a typhoon swept north over Taiwan.

The Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) has not released its final report on the GE235 incident, thus talk of the role of human error and possible confusion over which engine was acting up are little more than speculation at this point. But it is becoming increasingly clear that TransAsia is seriously understaffed in key positions, a situation which can have a direct impact on flight safety. The bottom line here is that Taiwan’s airlines must put the safety of its passengers and crew above all else, and it is the responsibility of the CAA to see that they do.

TransAsia is in trouble and the government must take steps to ensure that its woes will not affect the safety of flying in Taiwan. There is not much this administration or any other can do about the ability of airlines in bigger, richer markets to lure away pilots with better salaries and perks. What it can do, however, is make sure that pilots will be willing to stay on and serve the people of Taiwan by taking steps that allow pilots of domestic airlines to work under better conditions. That means setting hard guidelines for flying hours, grounding flights during inclement weather, and doing away with flights at odd hours of the day. Limits on flying hours should be reviewed immediately as they are the one factor with the greatest impact on the well-being of flight crews and, indirectly, that of airline passengers.

One industry source says that under normal circumstances, the average monthly load for pilots is about 70 hours, but recently some pilots have been flying more than 90 hours a month, pushing the workload to a critical point. As one solution, ways to attract and retain more pilots must be found. The use of women pilots is one option, and better benefits such as tax breaks for experienced pilots might also be considered.

Whatever the solution, the time for improvement is now, and both the industry and government must work to ensure that aviation safety in Taiwan is not compromised.

Updated : 2021-09-17 11:57 GMT+08:00