Jobless Pilots Bank On Gov’t to Establish Airline

In the early 1980s, Matt Sothi trained to be a pilot in the Soviet Union. Later, he flew Soviet-made MiG-21 and AN-24 fighter jets for RCAF and piloted Boeing 737s for the now-defunct national airline, Royal Air Cambodge. He currently serves as president of the Cam­bo­dian Pilots Association.

Nonetheless, he cannot find a job and is on the verge of losing his pilot’s license.

“Pilots need to be working or retrain every six months,” Matt Sothi said last week. “If I do not find a job by 2004, I will drop my ability as a pilot forever.”

Of the 25 members of the asso­ci­ation, only four have jobs. Like Matt Sothi, most Cambodian pilots trained in Russia during the 1980s and flew planes in the Air Force. Most worked for Royal Air Cambodge, but were laid off when the airline shut down in 2000.

Some of those pilots found work back at the Air Force. Some were hired last year by Mekong Air­lines, but the company suspended operations in May after severe acute respiratory syndrome affected ticket sales.

Other skilled pilots are unemployed or drive motorcycle taxis. With hope running out for this group of unemployed pilots to find work before they need to be re­trained—which costs between $5,000 and $10,000—they are calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to quickly establish a national airline.

“The only two men who can es­tab­lish a national airline are Sam­dech Hun Sen and Cabinet Min­ister Sok An,” Matt Sothi said. “These two men are our only hope.”

The Cambodian Pilots Associ­a­tion sent a letter to the prime minister a year ago asking him to persuade foreign airlines to employ Cambodian pilots. Since then, four pilots received jobs with the Thai-owned Siem Reap Airways.

One of those pilots, Deth Meoun, flies about 15 flights per month to and from Siem Reap. He makes about $1,000 per month, which is scant compared to foreign pilots who earn between $5,000 and $7,000 per month. Still, he is thankful to simply have a job.

“I was lucky that I got a job, and I feel sorry for my friends who do not have jobs,” Deth Meoun said. “The pilots are ready to work in Cambodia, but the government is not thinking to use these human resources.”

Cambodian pilots have little recourse but to hope the government takes action. Given Cambodia’s economic state, it is unlikely a private airline company will form without government intervention.

At RCAF, pilots and engineers show up a few times a month to sign their names on staff lists. Instead of flying planes, they sit and play cards. Most of the Air Force’s 24 Soviet fighter jets the pilots used to fly sit idle. They have been broken since 1991, sources say.

“We do nothing at the Air Force,” said a captain. “We play cards and relax and at the end of the month we receive $25 from the government. The Air Force is not important to us, but we want to work for a national airline.”

Rin Sarim, a former pilot with Royal Air Cambodge, is now a hot-air balloon operator in Siem Reap. He has not worked as a pilot for eight months.

“I have been trained to fly airplanes almost my whole life, but today I just press the button to order for the balloon to go up and down about 30 or 40 times a day,” Rin Sarim said. “I still hope that Hun Sen will help us one day. I was shocked when I saw all the Asean leaders landing at our airport with their own national airlines, while our VIPs fly to other countries on Bangkok Air.”

While some pilots still keep hope, the government has given them little reason to do so. Soy Sokhan, an adviser to Sok An, said that the government is working on the issue, but he could not give any details concerning it.

Hun Sen criticized the airline in 2000 for shoddy performance, flight cancellations and poor treatment of customers. In May of that year, he said he didn’t care if the airline folded.

An embarrassing August 2000 incident led to the firing of top Royal Air Cambodge officials. King Norodom Sihanouk was forced to delay a flight to Beijing, and Hun Sen apologized to the King, after ground crew spilled about 30 liters of jet fuel onto the tarmac as the monarch was preparing to depart.

The following year, Royal Air Cambodge suspended operations, and in April 2002, the airline stopped paying salaries.

The Civil Aviation department has tried to negotiate with Chinese partners to start up a new national airline, Civil Aviation’s Cabinet Chief Him Sarun said. So far no progress has been made.

“It is dark to see that sign,” Him Sarun said. “I have not seen any discussion on the deal yet. Up to now, there is no sign of a new Cambodian airline happening.”

Prince Norodom Chakrapong, president of Royal Phnom Penh Airways, said that it would take at least $10 million for the government to start a national airline.

“Without strong will and enough experience in the airline business, it will be very hard for the government to start an airline,” he said.

All this smacks against the dreams of aging Cambodian pilots, who envisioned helping train a younger generation to fly planes.

“I don’t think I will encourage my son to be a pilot,” Matt Sothi said. “Even his father has no job to do, so I do not want him to follow in my footsteps.”


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