By Anna Louw

South Africa's best pilots are being lured by promises of lucrative packages and better prospects from big international airlines.

With the global airline market booming, some of the bigger airlines such as Air India, Emirates, Qatar and Etihad are said to be among the bigger carriers targeting South Africa's top pilots, who are reported to be among the best trained in the world.

With many pilots expected to resign from South African Airways, which was on a drive to reduce its pod of pilots by 225 through voluntary retrenchments packages, the airline now appears to have had a rethink of its strategy.

Cathy Bill, the manager of the South African Airways Pilots' Association, on Tuesday said SAA had initially targeted a R1,7-billion profit, and to achieve that margin, it had been advised by consultants to request "labour to come to the party".

Bill confirmed that a notice sent out by SAA offering voluntary retrenchment packages to staff members was withdrawn last week.

The airline wanted to reduce its staff complement by 2 232 employees, of whom 225 were pilots.

After a consultative process with the unions, it appeared that a R638-million shortfall in the targeted R1,7-billion profit margin had been met, and it was now unlikely there would be forced retrenchments, Bill said.

She added it appeared that the climate at SAA had changed with the expected resignation of pilots following a massive recruitment drive by bigger international airlines.

Bhabhalazi Bulunga, the general manager of human resources at SAA, said: "The global airline market is booming as more and more people turn to air travel as their favoured mode of transport. Also, a number of airlines have placed significant orders for new aircraft. As a result, some airlines are looking for pilots and cabin crew in different parts of the world, including South Africa."

He said SAA recently offered voluntary severance packages to all its staff members, excluding management and international employees, after the successful conclusion of consultations with recognised trade unions.

It has been claimed that 120 pilots were leaving SAA as a result of retrenchments, but Bulunga said the figure was incorrect.

"SAA has not retrenched any employees as a result of the current restructuring process," he said.

Bulunga said it was also worth noting that SAA's pilots were among the most highly trained and best performing in the world, and "we are confident we will be able to retain pilots at the airline".

Linden Birns, the managing director of Plane Talking, said India and the Middle East were among the regions with a big global recruitment drive for pilots.

Emirates, he said, was even holding roadshows to draw the best pilots.

"The deregulation of Air India from a government monopoly a few years ago has also increased the demand for pilots in that country's booming privatised airline market," Birns said.

He added that low-cost airlines had also made big inroads in the global market, including South Africa.

"There is a huge demand for pilots in the Middle East and in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Australia."

Gidon Novick, the joint chief executive of Comair, which looks after, said that in the next 10 years 17 000 extra pilots were expected to be recruited worldwide on the back of low-cost airlines, which were showing significant growth.

"The challenge for this country is it to have enough pilots for 2010, which is why we have engaged the government in discussions about getting involved in the training of black pilots, who currently make up only 3 percent of the number of pilots in South Africa," Novick added.