Chinese airlines hope to broaden global appeal with more foreign cabin crew
All the major airlines contacted by China Daily have confirmed growing numbers of foreign crew, as they expand their traffic across the country and internationally, and the trend to have a more international feel and look to the Chinese airline cabin is expected to continue.
Officials report that with a growing number of foreign passengers booking to travel on Chinese airlines, the number of international attendants will have to grow too, as many foreigners prefer being served by foreign attendants, very often from their own country.
Air China, for example, currently employs the highest number of foreign attendants at around 40, with an expected 50 more South Korean staff waiting for work permits, before coming to China for three months of pre-job training.
China Southern Airlines also said that flight attendants from India and Central Asia have been employed, with more to come, as well as others from Australia, France and the Netherlands.
And China Eastern Airlines said it has a target of more than 100 foreign flight attendants, after 20 experienced hands were taken on board from Germany and France already this year.
Shen Xiaosheng, China Eastern’s deputy director of publicity, said that "many more foreign staff will be joining" it in future, insisting that the addition of more foreign faces has actually contributed to the carrier’s growing international and domestic traffic.
A spokesman for Hainan Airlines, meanwhile, explained what is the common practice among other airlines too, that foreign flight attendants normally work on the routes between China and their own countries, improving basic communications but also proving invaluable if problems arise during flights.
Hyoen Seok, a 30-year-old South Korean male flight attendant working with Hainan, said it was a busy job, and that many of his compatriots prefer being serviced by attendants their own country, although some Chinese flight attendants on his airline also speak foreign languages.
"I understand more about South Korean passengers’ needs," added Hyoen Seok, who works alongside 28 flight attendants at Hainan from other countries including Russia, Germany and Italy.
Across the industry, figures show that Chinese airlines are flying more foreign passengers as they expand their international reach.
Air China, for instance, carried 7,121,880 international passengers last year, a 2.55 percent increase on 2010, according to the company’s financial report. The carrier also added eight international and inter-regional routes in 2011, up from five in 2010.
China Southern Airlines also added three new international routes in its summer-autumn flight plan (March to October), a 27.2 percent growth in international transport compared to the same period in 2011.
Globally, the international aviation market has slowed compared to the Chinese market in recent years, as Western economies continue to struggle, and this is starting to have a knock-on effect on China’s airline industry too.
Major Chinese airlines’ financial reports show that international routes contributed less to their total income last year than in 2010. But despite the overall industry slowdown, Chinese carriers are still looking forward to expansion internationally, said Li Lei, an aviation analyst at CITIC Securities Co Ltd.
He added that the current international slowdown in traffic and passengers is being viewed as an opportunity for Chinese airlines, as launching foreign routes is considered cheaper than before.
On the flipside, Li Xiaojin, a professor at Civil Aviation University of China in Tianjin, said that as well as growing their international business, Chinese carriers also need to keep a close eye on the growing competition at home from the country’s newly-established high-speed train network.
"More market potential is definitely on international routes," he added.
Experts point out that employing more foreign flight attendants can actually save costs for Chinese airlines. Although foreign flight attendants’ salaries can be a little higher than their Chinese counterparts, the turnover of foreign flight attendants is lower, meaning a saving in recruitment and training costs for airlines, added Li Xiaojin.
For foreign recruits, working for a Chinese employer is proving a valuable and rewarding experience.
South Korean attendant Hyoen Seok said that after fours years with Hainan Airlines he is happy and plans to stay longer as other opportunities within the company open up.
Five South Korean flight attendants at Air China were promoted to be pursers this year, including Min Seon-ah, who has worked for the airline since 2004.
"The company gives me opportunities, which makes me continue to work here for a long term," said the South Korean woman, who can speak fluent Chinese.
Like her, Hyoen plans to stay a while longer with his Chinese employer, Hainan.
"I’ll maybe turn to other positions," he said.
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