Train instead of plane: that is the vocational fate that many pilots employed by EU airlines are currently facing. The European pilots' association, EPA, assumes that of the approximately 65,000 pilots employed by EU carriers, around 18,000 will permanently lose their jobs. The reason is the struggle for survival that many airlines are having to master in Covid-19 times, and the restructuring of the industry as Corona fades out. At Lufthansa, in Germany alone, up to 1,200 of around 5,500 pilots are expected to exit the company, the union Vereinigung Cockpit estimates. Vocational advisors recommend those pilots concerned to seek a new job in transportation or related industries.
Carlos Sprüngli was a pilot for 25 years until Covid-19 broke out and he lost his job when his airline drastically cut down on operations. He has meanwhile begun a requalification program to
become a train driver at the Swiss Railway company, SBB. "Life continues,” he told the Lyon, France-based pan-European TV network ‘Euronews’. It is similar to a personal relationship, he
argues: “If your partner decides to split, you have to swallow your honor and better start looking forward."
A lottery win
In Austria, Switzerland, or Germany, the number of pilots who are willing to start a new career as a train driver is increasing. This applies, in particular, to those who were employed by insolvent airlines, such as SunExpress Germany, Air Berlin, Germanwings, Lauda Air, or Germania. For rail companies, which traditionally have trouble finding suitable and qualified personnel, this development on the labor market is like winning the lottery. Even more since not only pilots but also former flight attendants are increasingly making the change from plane to train and are being hired as service personnel.
Stark income differences
The motto of those most willing to make the switch is: “a job is better than no job.” This is Felician Baumann’s motto who decided last September to become a streetcar driver in Vienna, Austria after obtaining a pilot license. “Streetcar driving and flying are quite similar tasks. Your job is to transport a certain number of guests from A to B or C.” He goes on to say: “I earn insignificantly less driving a streetcar than a pilot, who as a rookie is classified in the lowest salary group.” The situation is different for skilled pilots who have been flying for some time but now lost their job.
For example, initial salaries for pilots at the insolvent Air Berlin were €50,000 a year, while captains earned €95,000. At Lufthansa, a first officer starts at €54,000 per annum, while a captain is paid €112,000.
By contrast, the salary level at railroad companies is meager. For instance, a locomotive driver at German operator, Deutsche Bahn AG, earns between €34,000 - €42,000 annually, but can considerably up their income through bonus payments, shift work, or special allowances.
Employment agencies point out other fields of activity suitable for professional pilots facing unemployment, such as becoming meteorologists, experts in aviation law, or instructors at private flight schools.
“You can't just turn 1,000 pilots into 1,000 train drivers," warns Kirsten Lühmann, transport policy spokeswoman for the Social Democrats in the German parliament. The same applies to flight attendants, whose tasks on planes differ substantially from duties in trains. “In addition, no one knows what the situation in aviation will be like in a few years' time,” she said.
DB and LH intensify their cooperation
Meanwhile, Deutsche Bahn and Lufthansa have announced setting up a feeder network. Practically, this means that trains will complement and, in some cases, replace domestic air services on a number of selected routes. Starting in July, special fast trains will run nonstop between Hamburg and Frankfurt, and Munich and Frankfurt, enabling passengers to catch the first flight wave each morning. Berlin-Frankfurt and Bremen-Frankfurt are to follow. "Connected, integrated mobility benefits consumers, customers, and the environment," Deutsche Bahn Executive Board Member, Berthold Huber, stated.
“What will happen here is emblematic of the development the groups envision for European transport in the future,” he emphasized. "We will dovetail the different modes of transport even better."
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