Self-employed Pilots Constitute a Growing Risk in Aviation

At the very same day the pilots of Lufthansa subsidiary Germanwings commenced a two day walkout for securing their pay and generous pension scheme, causing massive flight cancellations, a study of the European Cockpit Association AISBL came to light. In their paper the AISBL researchers speak of a dramatic rise in ‘self-employment’ and zero-hours contracts for crew on European aircraft, reducing safety standards.

The EU should tighten rules to ensure long-term stability in European air transport, demands AISBL
The EU should tighten rules to ensure long-term stability in European air transport, demands AISBL

The association’s survey reveals that in Europe up to 4 out of 10 airline pilots under the age of 30 are self-employed. Funded by the European Commission and carried out by the Belgian University of Ghent, the study concludes that more than 1 in 6 pilots in Europe are “atypical” employees, i.e. working through a temporary work agency, as self-employed, or on a zero-hour contract with no minimum pay guarantee.
According to the study that is based on the answers of 6,000 participants, “an alarming number of pilots are working with no direct link to the airline they actually fly for, with some carriers – especially in the low fares sector – drawing significantly upon a ‘casualized’ workforce.”

Young pilots are most affected
The researchers say that self-employment is one of the most prevalent types of atypical employment. 7 out of 10 of all self-employed pilots work for a low cost airline. Yet, self-employment is sometimes used to disguise what is in reality regular employment. “This creates an unfair competitive advantage for those airlines that use it and severely distorts the aviation market,” criticize the authors.
Young pilots are the ones who are most affected by such casualization of labor. 40% of 20-30 year old pilots are flying without being directly employed by the airline. While finding a job is difficult for young pilots in the first place, they also face situations where they end up subsidizing their airline, e.g. by paying the airline to fly its aircraft in order to gain flight experience (“pay-to-fly” schemes). “This creates potential conflicts of interests for an independent safety professional, and constitutes straight financial exploitation,” say the authors.

Alarming risk factor
Comments Emmanuel Jahan, Chair of the European Sectoral Social Dialogue for Civil Aviation: “The study clearly shows that affected pilots are worrying about their working conditions and where to pay their taxes and social security. This puts crew under disproportionate strain.” 
Even more worrying is the author’s finding that casualized labor in aviation “ raises serious concerns about safety and security matters of the industry.” Much of this is possible because the existing legislation has loopholes or is not enforceable, the AISBL criticizes.
As result of their study the authors recommend that EU rules and safety regulations must be changed to ensure that employment models and management modes do not harm fair competition, nor damage the wellbeing or safety of passengers and crew. Concludes Jon Horne, Vice-Chair of the Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee: “We are keen to analyze and discuss together with decision-makers the action needed to ensure long-term stability in European air transport, in particular with regard to the detrimental burden placed on younger pilots, exemplified by abhorrent ‘pay-to-fly’ schemes.”

Heiner Siegmund

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