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FILE PHOTO - A plane prepares to land at Sydney International Airport behind climbers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge at sunset in Australia, July 12, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray

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SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Australian government is expected to relax restrictions on visas for foreign pilots as a national shortage sees planes grounded and flights cancelled, aviation officials said on Friday.

Australia earlier this year removed pilots from a list of eligible professions allowed to work in the country as so-called skilled migrants amid a crackdown to promote "Australia-first".

With a global shortage of pilots, Australia's international carriers have lost staff to competitors, forcing them to recruit from domestic carriers, who are in turn employing trained pilots from smaller regional airlines.

Unable to source enough pilots, Australia's regional carriers have been forced to cancel flights, but Mike Higgins, chief executive officer of the industry body, the Regional Aviation Association of Australia, said the country's government has told him it will ease restrictions in January.

"The government has said it will add pilots to the skilled migrant visa list in January and they will be able to work in Australia for two years," said Higgins.

Representatives for Australia's minister for home affairs Peter Dutton did not immediately respond to request for comment.

A relaxation of visa restrictions would be provide some relief to Australia's rural travellers, which have been beset by frequent flight cancellations.

According to Australian government data, 3 percent of domestic flights were cancelled in November, the highest monthly level in nearly six years. Cancellations of Australian domestic flights hit a high of more than 5 percent in December 2011 when a volcanic ash cloud from Chile grounded flights.

The carriers that had the most cancellations were Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd and QantasLink, the regional carrier of Qantas Airways Ltd, the data showed.

Representatives for both companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Australia's centre-right government can ill-afford to alienate rural voters, a central voter block for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is struggling to keep his grip onto power.

Australia's opposition Labor Party welcomed the likely visa relaxation but said the government must do more to improve the ability of locals to train as pilots.

"We need to make sure we can keep our planes in the air, you can't train pilots in just a day or a week or a month," Anthony Albanese told reporters on Friday.

"The problem is training enough Australian pilots to fulfil our domestic aviation needs."

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

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Reuters