SINGAPORE Airlines (SIA) has frozen cadet-pilot recruitment and cut flying hours for junior pilots amid a business slowdown that has led to a manpower surplus.

The last cadet intake was early this year and it has not been decided when hiring will resume, SIA spokesman Nicholas Ionides told The Straits Times. He did not say how many were recruited during the last exercise, but noted that it was a smaller number than in previous years.

The usual is about 120 a year.

SIA, which has about 2,400 pilots, last suspended hiring of cadet pilots in 2009 following the global financial crisis.

The current slowdown, which caused full-year profits for the 12 months to end-March to dive 69 per cent to $336 million, is also affecting those already flying.

Many junior pilots, especially those on the Boeing 777 fleet, have had their average flying time cut from more than 60 hours a month to less than 50, The Straits Times has learnt.

This has hit their pockets, since about 30 per cent of their total take-home pay comes from flying allowances.

Mr Ionides declined to comment on duty hours, citing commercial confidentiality, but pilots The Straits Times spoke to said the net effect for a junior pilot, who earns up to $8,000 a month, is a pay cut of a few hundred dollars.

The pilot surplus, which has persisted for about a year, is also due to delays in new planes, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliners and Airbus 350s.

Mr Ionides said the airline will consider several factors, including new aircraft deliveries, before deciding when to lift the freeze on hiring cadet pilots.

The global slowdown has also hit other long-haul premium carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Qantas.

The International Air Transport Association recently said that it expects global carriers to earn a collective profit of US$4.1 billion (S$5 billion) this year, a sharp drop from the US$8.4 billion achieved last year.

Captain Mok Hin Choon, 59, president of the Air Line Pilots Association of Singapore (Alpa-S), said the union is working with SIA's management to find ways to help pilots affected by the slowdown.

In March, SIA offered its pilots an option to volunteer for up to two years' no-pay leave.

The scheme is ongoing, said Mr Ionides, who did not reveal how many had taken it up.

Capt Mok said: "For our part, we are also encouraging our members to explore this option."

In addition, Alpa-S is talking to management about the possibility of moving pilots from the flagship carrier to subsidiaries that are still growing, such as regional arm SilkAir and budget offshoot Scoot, Capt Mok said. This is not the usual practice for the different airline units, which typically hire and fire independently.

Capt Mok said: "We spend a lot of money and energy training and developing our pilots, who are a valuable resource. By moving them to sister airlines that need pilots, we get to keep our pilots within the group and do not risk losing them to other carriers."

"We need to work together to manage this unfortunate situation, which we hope will improve soon," he added.