Korean pilots demand 37% pay raise, or they may go to China

(CNN)Travelers planning a trip to South Korea should watch out for a possible pilots' strike in the next few weeks.

About 1,900 members of Korean Air's two pilot unions have until February 1 to vote on whether to carry out a walkout after the company proposed a pay rise -- 1.9% over 2015 levels -- much lower than what the unions are demanding -- a 37% raise.
"Korean Air's pilot's annual salary is about $116,000, excluding welfare benefits, which is about the top 1% in terms of salary in Korea," Nathan Cho, manager of Korean Air Corporate Communications told CNN.
"A 37% increase would be equivalent to $41,000 -- which is around the average salary of a normal employee in Korea and the request is unacceptable."
    Seo Sang-won from the Korean Pilot Union, one of the protesting unions, defended their position. "Our demand is legitimate as the company froze or inched up the pay increase rate over the past few years."
    The two parties have held five rounds of negotiations since last October.
    The unions said that there may be a partial walkout if they fail to reach an agreement following the vote.
    "Korean Air is designated as a public essential service and we need to maintain more than 80% of our operation regardless of the walkout," said Cho. "And Korean Air plans to do its best to prevent any kind of inconvenience that might affect its customers."

    Global demand for pilots

    Seo warned that if the Korean industry doesn't up its wages, more pilots will be lured to work elsewhere, especially to China.
    According to Korea Times, the average wage of a Korean Air pilot is only one third of that paid to Chinese pilots -- even though there are other non-monetary discrepancies like lengths of tenure and welfare benefits.
    "About 140 pilots left Korean Air last year and 40 pilots among them chose Chinese airlines," Seo said.
    In response to the company's high turnover rate, Cho said it "has been a trend for quite awhile" in the global aviation industry for cockpit crews to move to other airlines.
    Korean Air is diversifying its supply of pilots, including developing its own training program with Korea Aerospace University, Cho added.
    Korea's aviation industry has witnessed 6% yearly growth in the past five years.
    It isn't the only nation facing fierce competition due to the shortage of pilots.
    A recent report by Boeing forecast that more than 500,000 new commercial pilots will be needed in the next 20 years, with 226,000 new cockpit crew needed in Asia.
    It's been more than a decade since Korean Air last faced a major pilot strike.
    More than 200 flights were canceled as a result of the dispute in 2005.