Not ready for take-off

The trade unionists of the skies have been saving jobs as their industry taxis on the runway, writes Sean Meleady

June 7, 2021 · 7 min read
Pilots have experienced unprecedented upheaval as a result of the pandemic. Credit: BALPA

Imagine you’ve had your heart set on a particular career since you were a child. Having done your research on how to train for your dream career, you find out what the relevant trade union is. What would your reaction be if you discovered that this trade union was actively discouraging people from joining your dream profession?

This is exactly the advice that the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) has given potential trainee pilots during the Covid-19 pandemic. BALPA describes their step as ‘extraordinary’, but argued in a statement last November that they are trying to help trainee pilots avoid paying up to £100,000 for their training only to find that there are no jobs available.

Wendy Pursey, Head of Membership and Careers Services at BALPA, said: ‘There are currently 10,000 unemployed commercial pilots across Europe including 1,600 pilots in the UK. Many pilots are working part time or on reduced pay to save jobs. And there are already around 200 trainees in flight training schools who were on a path to jobs with Easy Jet who now have no clear route to even a licence, far less a job.

This is not a positive picture for anyone whose heart is set on entering this profession. There will be fewer jobs, with more people competing for each one. In this situation it would be irresponsible if we did anything other than warn people to consider delaying their flight training at this time.’

Many people may not realise that airline pilots are unionised – and may even assume that pilots are highly-paid enough to have no concerns over job conditions – but BALPA has represented workers since 1937. The union has been fighting hard for the livelihood of its members throughout the pandemic, in the face of bans and restrictions on travel as well as massive reductions in passenger numbers.

Shortly after the first national lockdown in March 2020, the union recognised the severity of the situation and offered a range of support to pilots. This included legal and careers advice, specialist webinars, support for pilot wellbeing and a Redundancy Assistance Group. BALPA leaders have also been lobbying the government, providing evidence at select committees, and meeting with airlines.

An industry in crisis?

However, this has not prevented the loss of many jobs throughout the pandemic. In January 2021, Norwegian Air decided to end its long haul flights from the UK based at Gatwick airport, opting to focus instead on short-haul routes in the Nordics. Around three hundred pilots were made redundant as a result.

Brian Strutton, BALPA General Secretary, said: ‘[T]here can be no blame apportioned to the pilot, crew or other staff groups. This is further evidence that the jobs death spiral I’ve been highlighting for months sadly continues. Make no mistake – aviation remains in serious crisis.’

This followed the decision of Jet 2 to make 102 Pilots redundant last August at its bases in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, despite BALPA putting forward a range of proposals to save jobs.

In an indication of the difficulties faced by pilots, 96 per cent of BALPA members at Ryanair voted to accept temporary pay cuts two months after the airline stated that 330 jobs were at risk. This included 70 potential job losses at four bases earmarked for possible closure at Leeds Bradford, Prestwick, Bournemouth and Southend. Pilots even agreed to take a 20% pay cut at an airline BALPA recently won a legal case against over ‘blacklisting’ of trade unionists.

It was a similar story at British Airways last summer, when 85 per cent of BALPA members voted (on an 87 per cent turnout) to accept a deal which involved the reduction of a 20 per cent pay cut to 8 per cent over two years  and towards zero over the longer term. This deal was negotiated after BA made 1,255 pilots redundant and threatened to fire and rehire the remaining pilots on inferior conditions. BALPA negotiated a deal that forced BA to drop their fire and rehire tactics, but around 270 pilots still faced redundancy.

More recently, the union has been concerned about the situation at Wizz Air. According to a whistle-blower, the London airline laid off 20 per cent of its staff in 2020 in a way that jeopardised flight safety. Pilots reportedly felt pressured to work when ill or fatigued, as the company had drawn up a target list of potential redundancies with those who regularly took time off for illness top of the list.

Not all bad news

However, it hasn’t all been bad news in relation to the union’s battles with airlines. In September 2020, BALPA announced that they had achieved a breakthrough with EasyJet to ensure no pilots would face redundancy. This was despite EasyJet’s estimate that 727 pilots were at risk, with 60 already opting for voluntarily redundancy and 1,500 going part time.

BALPA‘s membership at EasyJet has grown in strength and influence during the crisis. Members have twice rejected the company’s coronavirus cooperation agreement as well as a redundancy selection process that refers to sickness records. As a result of the union’s success, pilots based at Southend, Stansted and Newcastle were offered jobs in other parts of the UK network.

Even before the pandemic, the onset of mass air travel had led to a decline in working standards for pilots, including issues of casualisation, flight time limitations, and the reluctance of budget airlines such as Ryanair to recognise BALPA. However, in an industry that has moved from luxury to mass market over the past few decades, airlines are more determined than ever to exploit workers to make a profit, and the pandemic has exacerbated this.

Under these conditions, BALPA has worked hard to support its members and fight for jobs to be saved. In the future, especially if climate change necessitates a world with less international travel, the union’s input will be needed more than ever in shaping how a ‘just transition’ can be carried out to the benefit of workers.

Sean Meleady is a political activist, writer and adult education lecturer based in Norfolk.

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