Some U.S. pilots finding the friendly skies of China more profitable

CBS

(CBS News) Air travel is soaring around the globe and so is demand for pilots. Airlines will have to hire nearly 500,000 commercial pilots in the next 20 years to keep up with aircraft orders and the biggest need is in the Asia-Pacific region. Boeing estimates nearly 200,000 pilots will be hired there.

Tianjin Airlines has 56 foreign pilots and 17 are Americans. One of those is American pilot Dave Hubberts who has been flying for 15 years.

"I was doing Greensboro, and Chicago and Fargo and Lafayette, Louisiana whereas here I get to go to Qingdao, and Wenzhou, and Fuzhou," he said. "Not only places I'd never heard of - but look at Tianjin - Tianjin is a city of 10 million people I'd never heard of before I looked at coming here!"

Tianjin, China actually has 14 million people and it's now home to the 33-year-old Hubberts.

Hubberts said that being a pilot in China never crossed his mind until there were layoffs at the regional carrier he worked for in Chicago.

"I got moved back from being captain to being first officer and a regional airline's first officer doesn't make a lot of money," he said.

He told CBS News' Seth Doane that with that job he made enough money to qualify for food stamps for a family of four.

According to U.S. industry estimates, first officers at regional carriers can make as little as $20,000 a year, whereas Tianjin Airlines is advertised jobs with pay of $18,000 a month.

Hubberts told Doane that, with overtime and some bonuses, he has made in just one month the equivalent of nine months of regional first officer pay.

Asked if the fast growth of the industry could lead to a sacrifice in safety, Li Rongkui, general manager of Tianjin's flight department said that safety is always the priority and no airline can afford "unsafe incidents."

From his seat in the cockpit, Hubberts can definitely see China's growth.

"With the middle class expanding like it is China, they want to travel, they want to go places and you don't understand what that equates to until you get over here and you see it for yourself and you realize that no matter where we run the airplanes, they're full," he said.

In fact, the planes are so full that China's airlines need to triple the number of planes of the next 20 years. It can take up to 10 years to train a pilot, meaning the only empty seats on those planes may be in the cockpit.

For Seth Doane's full report watch the video in the player above.