Russian pilots leaving country in quest for work

The number of unemployed pilots in Russia has recently increased.

The number of unemployed pilots in Russia has recently increased.

Ruslan Shamukov/TASS
With financial and political circumstances contributing to airline bankruptcies and a rise in unemployment, more and more Russian pilots are looking abroad for work, threatening the sector with the potential loss of some of its most talented and experienced fliers.

As domestic carriers struggle to cope with tough new economic realities and the suspension of flights to destinations such as Ukraine and Turkey, Russia’s commercial pilots are feeling the pressure, with the number of those unemployed doubling to 4,000 over the past year, while salaries have started falling.

With no sign of better times on the horizon and the possibility that several airlines may have to abandon the market, more and more pilots are now searching for work abroad.

According to Miroslav Boichuk, president of the Pilots’ Union, there are about 14,800 pilots that are licensed to transport passengers in commercial airlines in Russia.

Meanwhile the number of unemployed in the field has recently increased. While two years ago there were 1,500 to 2,000 unemployed pilots, today the figure ranges between 1,600 and 4,000.

About 500 of them are pilots from Transaero, Russia’s second-largest airline, which stopped flying in October 2015 due to financial difficulties. Before filing for bankruptcy Transaero had about 900 pilots.

"About 150 pilots went to Aeroflot [Russia's largest airline]. About 50 people found jobs with other companies and another 70, who used to fly Boeing 747s, are now working for AirBridgeCargo," said Boichuk, adding that another group of those Transaero pilots has already been for interview at a new company, Rossiya, which is being created out of three Aeroflot subsidiaries: Rossiya, Orenburgskiye Avialinii and Donavia.

Less work, lower salary

A Gazeta.ru newspaper source close to Aeroflot remarked that the airline currently has 26 vacancies for aircraft captains, while in 2013, for example, Aeroflot needed 140 captains.

It is not only the number of available jobs that is falling – the salary for captains has also been reduced. While two years ago an Aeroflot aircraft captain could earn 500,000 rubles a month ($13,000-14,000, according to the 2014 exchange rate), now, according to Aeroflot vacancy announcements, the maximum salary a captain can earn is 400,000 rubles ($5,000, according to the Feb. 1, 2016 exchange rate).

"Back then there was a lack of aircraft captains for certain types of planes: the Airbus 319, the Airbus 320, the Airbus 321, the Boeing 737," said Boichuk, adding that that two years ago about 3,000 people out of the 7,500 co-pilots had more than 2,500 hours of flying experience, which gave them the right to apply for the position of captain.

Russian pilots in departure lounge

Many pilots have responded to the lack of domestic opportunities by searching for employment abroad. The Pilots’ Union has calculated that since the end of 2014 about 50 pilots have obtained work in other countries.

For example, one year ago the daily broadsheet Izvestiya wrote that 264 Russian pilots were employed by the Emirates airline.

"There is demand for our pilots abroad. For example, China, according to various sources, needs 300 experienced captains. But China has strict medical regulations, the selection process is rather severe. During a recent selection out of 20 Russian pilots only two were picked. Unfortunately, the cream of the crop, the best specialists, are leaving Russia," said Boichuk.

Roman Gusarov from Avia.Ru agrees, adding that Russian pilots often prefer to work for foreign airlines.

"This is not only today's phenomenon. It also occurred in those years when Russian airlines lacked experienced pilots. The saddest thing is that foreign companies attracted precisely the most experienced professionals. Anyone who spoke English well was always ready to go abroad," said Gusarov.

According to the Pilots’ Union, in early February specialized agencies will meet to discuss measures that could help preserve the number of pilots.

Meanwhile, Russian industry insiders believe that many pilots who work for airlines oriented towards tourist transportation may lose their jobs.

"If in the very near future, at least in March, Egypt is not opened for flights, by the end of the year we will have another series of bankruptcies, about five-six companies out of the first 20," warned Boichuk.

First published in Russian in Gazeta.ru.

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