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Aviation without pilots

Mass unemployment of pilots is looming

The EU entered this crisis with the noble aim to safeguard jobs and prevent mass unemployment. But – so far – none of this has translated into concrete measures for the aviation employees. While airlines have swiftly been accommodated with flexible slot and state aid rules, workers have been left behind.   

Thousands of atypically employed pilots have already been laid off. It looks now unlikely they will have jobs to return to, post-COVID. In some countries, governments have included those on precarious contracts in their unemployment compensation schemes. But the majority of pilots is now living off their savings accounts and are facing a double trouble: As their savings are evaporating, the clock on their pilot currency is also ticking. Unlike other professions, pilots need continuous flying experience to keep their license and remain employable. This is a legal and mandatory requirement.

At the same time, directly employed pilots are on various furlough schemes and part-time arrangements or (forced) unpaid leave. With many of those schemes about to end but still very few aircraft in the air, airlines will start laying off staff on a massive scale: 12.000 jobs at British Airways are at risk, 10.000 at Lufthansa, 7.000 SAS, 4.000+ Norwegian, 3.000+ Virgin Atlantic, 3.000 Ryanair, 1.000 Wizzair. Thousands of pilots more will soon join the ranks of Europe’s unemployed.

What has come out as a European reaction to this dramatic situation is clearly insufficient. Despite a series of ECA letters and initiatives with pleas, proposals and questions to the European Commission, there is no indication that the gravity of the situation of aviation workers has been really understood. In a recent hearing at the European Parliament Transport Committee, EU Commissioner Vălean – despite being questioned – gave no indication that safeguarding aviation jobs is on the Commission’s horizon and part of its ‘bailout’ plans. No commitments and pledges have been made, no re-assurance or hope given to the thousands of air crew across Europe. 

Thousands of pilots more will soon join the ranks of Europe’s unemployed.

If the EU Commission thinks that saving airlines equates to saving crew jobs, they need to look back at the not so distant past. Aviation was hit hard by the 2008 economic downturn with over 3.000 pilot jobs lost. Airlines stopped hiring for many years and working conditions deteriorated dramatically. Atypical employment – such as 0-hour contracts, pay-to-fly schemes for young pilots – received a significant boost. At that time, up to 70% of the crew in certain airlines was on an agency or ‘self-employment’ contract. This drove a mass exodus of European pilots to China and the Middle East. The pilot job market in Europe never really recovered from the damages of the 2008 crisis and precarious atypical employment forms stayed on ever since. This time, the long-term impact of the pandemic is predicted to be several times bigger than the 2008 crisis.

This is why since the very beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, ECA has been actively reaching out to the Commission and proposing measures to prevent the scenarios from the past. The classic excuse that the EU (Commission) is powerless, doesn’t count this time.

What could the EU Commission concretely do?

The Commission could recommend Member States to tie any support measures to airlines with the condition to be socially responsible. This could be done by making EU-funded support measures conditional on keeping people in any jobs that will be needed after the recovery, on fair terms, and not using precarious atypical employment forms. This would avoid companies like Air Baltic trick crew into schemes like the recently proposed one: pilots to become a minority shareholders of the company, enter dividend schemes and become self-lease firm owners instead of working as pilots.

The Commission has other tools up its sleeve. Several EU funds – e.g. SURE, ESF, EGF – exist to ensure that the COVID-19 crisis does not result in wasteful job losses.  Such tools can provide support for safeguarding qualified pilot jobs. They could be used to support pilots and/or their airlines to compensate e.g. the costs for simulator training which pilots need to keep their license current. All these are necessary steps to enable a return to service of the airlines – together with their pilots. The funds could also be used to compensate the costs of retraining on new types of aircraft and/or operations, or for retraining pilots to find alternative jobs within or outside of aviation. The undeniable reality is that pilot jobs will disappear, and people will have to be retrained for other careers. 

Firing pilots now – to rehire them six months later on an allegedly self-employment basis – will not be a pandemic-driven move

Preserving jobs and supporting crew directly is not just about the money and people’s livelihoods. It is also about preserving the skills and experience of the workforce. Without it, there is a real risk that European aviation will get out of the crisis, but with a significant experience vacuum, loss of competencies, skills base and licenses. Keeping qualified pilots current is of vital importance to the aviation system.

But safeguarding jobs now and investing in the people is also a way to prevent a further deterioration of working conditions in aviation. Many airlines are now tempted to use the crisis to push for lower conditions and set up new exploitative atypical employment schemes. Firing pilots now – to rehire them six months later on an allegedly self-employment basis – will not be a pandemic-driven move. 

The European Commission still has the opportunity to change the course of this disaster. Otherwise, we will soon have an aviation industry trying to take off, but without qualified and experienced pilots.