Vietnam Airlines is flying high in regional rankings as one of the top carriers in Asia, but there are rumblings of discontent among its pilots, who are quitting in significant numbers, citing low pay and benefits.
A VNA official who did not want to be named told VnExpress that 7 pilots had tendered their resignations last month. And at a recent internal conference held by the carrier, A350 captain and flight trainer Pham Tien Nga said 12 of his co-pilots have turned in their papers.
Also last month, a joint petition was submitted to the government by 16 pilots, saying they were forced to leave the national carrier by low pay, unsatisfactory work conditions and severance policies.
In its yearly report last year, VNA said the average salary for its pilots was VND121 million ($5,300) per month. However, a VNA co-pilot who wanted to stay anonymous said he only earned VND50-70 million per month, and the monthly salary for a captain was VND110-150 million.
In contrast, the two other functioning airlines in the country, both budget carriers, offer much higher average salaries to their pilots and co-pilots.
At Vietjet Air and Jetstar Pacific a co-pilot can earn as much as VND100-120 million and VND110-160 million per month, respectively.
For a captain, the monthly salary goes up to VND110-160 million and VND180-240 million per month, respectively.
Lower-than-average pay isn’t the only concern that the VNA pilots and co-pilots have. They are not happy that their pay is significantly lower than pilots from other countries who do the same job for the national carrier.
Nguyen Anh Tuan, a VNA captain and flight trainer, said his monthly pay was just two-thirds of what foreign pilots make per month.
Another VNA co-pilot, Q, said the airline also offers foreign pilots better benefits and personal policies. Foreign pilots get to spend two weeks off for every six weeks spent working, while Vietnamese pilots only get to spend one week off for every nine weeks spent working, the Thanh Nien newspaper reported.
It doesn’t stop there. Q claimed that VNA also strategically schedule the pilots’ days off so that they have to work more without getting overtime pay, especially during busy seasons.
“This has been happening for a long time now. We pilots have raised our voices many times, but there have been no effective solutions offered by the management.”
The way they are being treated is having a negative impact on their motivation and efficiency, Q said.
The discrepancies between VNA’s severance policies and the Labor Law are also a point of concern for the pilots.
According to their employment contracts with VNA, “highly-skilled employees” need to tell the firm at least 120 days in advance if he or she wants to resign from his or her position, and cannot work for another airline as long as the previous contract with VNA hasn’t been terminated.
Pilots say this provision does not comply with the Labor Law, which says an employee can terminate an employment contract on his or her own, giving at least 45 days advance notice.
VNA’s severance policies are another sore point for the pilots. Those who terminate their contract prematurely would have to pay back their “training fees,” which could go up to VND3.5 billion.
The pilots have slammed such provisions as “irrational,” saying there were no legal bills or documents to verify the actual costs of aviation training.
“VNA should publicize the individual costs of all pilot training classes,” Q said.
One VNA executive said the salary that the pilots receive every month is “already high,” the Thanh Nien reported.
Tran Thanh Hien, VNA’s chief accountant, said at the internal conference that the national carrier already spends 39 percent of its budget to pay its pilots.
Responding to the charge of foreign pilots being paid more, Duong Tri Thanh, a VNA director, said it was because of high living costs in the their home countries and the ‘additional costs’ they incurred while working here.
On the training fees that the pilots had to repay on premature termination of their employment contracts, a VNA executive said the firm was acting in accordance with the Ministry of Transport’s policies.
The amount that needs to be paid varies, based on the pilots’ seniority. One pilot can be required to pay billions of dong, while would only have to pay several hundred million dong, Duong said.
He also said the 120-day notice before resigning was reasonable, because being a pilot was a “special” job.
“We need a 120-day notice to have enough time to find another suitable candidate for the position. Being a pilot is different from other jobs; you cannot just have someone replace you immediately. One needs to have the proper skills and qualifications to be eligible for the position. Many candidates have undergone our training classes for a long time, but never made it,” Duong said.
This isn’t the first time VNA pilots decided to take actions to voice their concerns. In 2015, several of the national carrier’s pilots also called in sick and turned in their resignation letters due to low pay.
Vietnam Airlines has been named one of the top airlines in Asia by TripAdvisor.
The airline was rated among the 11 best major airlines in the region, according to the travel website’s 2018 Travelers Choice Awards, which collects ratings on legroom, customer service, cleanliness, food and beverage, seat comfort, value for money, ease of check-in and boarding, and in-flight entertainment.
The national carrier reported profits of VND313 billion ($13.7 million) and a turnover of VND 21.3 trillion ($934.7 million) in the fourth quarter of 2017, a 26.8 percent increase from the same period the previous year.
Founded in 1956, Vietnam Airlines operates 93 planes, including the new top-end Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and long-haul Airbus 350-900.