Überlegungen eines Verkehrspiloten: Tough times for flight deck crew members - a reality check

SYMBOLBILD Flugverkehr - alle Fotos: Austrian Wings Media Crew

Am Freitag erreichte Austrian Wings ein Schreiben, das nach Angaben des Verfassers selbst von einem langjährigen Flugkapitän stammen soll. Der Informant, der es uns übermittelt hat, gibt an, den Autor seit Jahren zu kennen. Für Austrian Wings ist die Behauptung aufgrund verschiedener Faktoren durchaus glaubwürdig, doch leider nicht durch eigene Recherchen verifizierbar. Trotzdem veröffentlichen wir in diesem Fall den Text im englischen Original, da viele der darin genannten Punkte in der gleichen oder in ähnlicher Weise bereits in der Vergangenheit immer wieder von uns persönlich bekannten Verkehrsflugzeugführern an uns herangetragen wurden.

Before I start sharing my views on some of the unfortunate “new ways of doing things” I would like to introduce myself and state that everything below is solely my personal point of view. I am way over 50, an airline captain for the past 23 years, a total of 30+years in the industry, will hit 20k hours next summer (maybe) and flew different Airbus - and Boeing types, short haul, long haul, cargo and passengers and have world wide operational experience. I am a training captain and used to work on the other side of the desk for a number of years. I flew for major airlines as well as being a contractor for some doggy ACMI operators whenever another crises hit. Yep, so far an illuminating and interesting work life with a number of years to go (another maybe). A few friends of mine with similar career paths where thinking about writing a book together to share their experiences. Maybe one day they will and I can already assure you an interesting and entertaining read.

I witnessed and worked through different crises (2001 / 2008 / 2020) lost jobs but somehow always managed to get back to do what I like most - flying.

We’ll have a closer look on what kind of hilarious opportunities „the new now“ offers to airline managers and their hr people. I will try and address the constant battle that we (as normal flight crew) are facing if not being one of the employees that work for a flag carrier (even they face new fronts and dirty management tricks). I will describe a few examples on how ridiculous some operators try to abuse the system, well aware of the desperation of furloughed flight crews all around the world. The race to the bottom is on for many years now and some terms and conditions that are on offer these days are simply scandalous. Airline Industry CEO‘s around the world lie whenever their lips move. Without blushing! "We do not make safety features optional. Safety has been - and always will be - our top priority…" (Dennis Muilenburg)

The upcoming
The ultra low cost concept started its triumphal march in Europe in the early Nineties. At the beginning I thought that some LCC showed a fairly good sense of humor when they wrote „Auf wiedersehen Lufthansa“ on one of their airplanes. Not funny at all if we take a closer look at the consequences. Self employed contractors that even had to pay for their uniform. No social benefits, vacation or profit sharing. No free food, coffee or water. Pay to fly became a common good for airline managers and young motivated pilots would start their career with a 150.000 € mountain of debt, paying for interviews, training, motels, living in cheap scratch pads, sharing rooms with colleagues, desperately accepting whatever was on the table. Modern migrant workers. Moving their whole lives over and over again whenever a new base opens or closes. Their flight bags filled with chocolate- and cereal bars to get them through long duty days. Tupperware is also a regular content of our flight bags today, like construction workers who bring their own lunch.

Leader of this new reality is the little man from the island who’s unscrupulousness was unmatched for many years. Very innovative when it comes to inventing new ways of fooling everyone to suck out that last bit of his workforce and turn it into profit. Flight crews are seen as overpaid truck-drivers (no disrespect to these hard working men and women). I never used those companies (yes, I rather pay more) until today and will also try to keep it that way. Your ticket costs 15,-€ but your bag (that you need for the trip) is 50,-€. Hahn is not Frankfurt, Beauvais is not Paris, Charleroi is not Brussels. Go back to school little man. "Don’t believe a word" (Phil Lynott).

Following his example there where a few other companies trying to do the same thing. Some more successful than others, some failed completely, others are still doing trying. Like an infectious disease these practices made their way into world leading airlines. Of course on a different scale but very noticeable. I rarely  hear anyone saying that he/she is/was proud to work for one of  those outfits.

What changed
Airlines used to select their candidates and trained them on their own cost. Along with the tremendous expansion of the aviation industry more and more private flight schools appeared all around the world and produced large numbers of self funding pilots.
The airlines saw amazing potential to safe huge numbers and started to turn flight training into a profitable business. Candidates now had to pay the (generally overpriced) type rating as well and extend their licences at own costs. Outrageously some operators even sold line training to pilots just to let them go after training in order to take on the next paying pilot.

Piloten im Cockpit einer 737, ein beliebtes Modell bei Billigfliegern mit fragwürdigen Arbeitsbedingungen, die laut Expertenansicht mitunter auch potentiell die Flugsicherheit gefährden können.

Candidates today also pay for their assessment (travel, hotel, tests, simulator). I spoke to First Officers that had to pay 5000,-€ to a flight school in order to be interviewed by an airline. The airline of course signed a contract with that school. HR now produces numbers instead of spending money. Sophisticated and clever contracts all with the same goal. Save money wherever possible. Those practices came at a high price as they resulted in the complete loss of empathy, pride, corporate identity, respect. "If you don‘t like it - leave". "You can always resign but remember that you‘ll have to pay the fine.“ Common practice in this new world is that pilots leave one day after payday for better paid jobs. Only a handful of responsible managers will not forget their most valuable asset; Flight Crews! Shareholders value is number one priority for them at all times and at all costs. Sad but true.

Contract agencies
Parallel to these developments another line of business evolved at fast pace. Agencies started to lease pilots to airlines. Initially, airlines used the services of an agency whenever they introduced a new type of aircraft to their fleet and needed qualified instructors to train their own pilots. These contracts where paid well, as expertise in every type of business comes with a price tag. With increasing demand airlines noticed enormous potential to save labour costs when using contract crews. It was also easier to let them go again once they where not needed anymore. Some airlines even opened their own agency to hire crews simply to avoid high non-wage labor costs as much as legally possible. Short term these contracts are well perceived by pilots as they can be attractive. Long term, people would give up all social benefits and usually don’t stay long. During the pandemic agencies where the only ones advertising positions for pilots. Not because these positions actually existed but to fill up their data bases to be ready when business picks up again. And it will! The rise of ACMI operators paved the way for the total destruction of normal terms and conditions.

Aircraft Crew Maintenance Insurance
As a business model that quickly attracted the attention of greedy managers to increase business without expanding their own fleet and team or even cut their fleet in half, let expensive people go and buy cheaper, more productive capacity for the season (Tuifly Germany is the most recent victim). In fact you might buy a ticket with your favorite airline, but end up in an (usually white tail) airplane that is operated by another airline. The crew of that other airline is employed by an agency (formed by the other airline). So your favorite airline is renting capacity during peak seasons and the crew of the ACMI operator produces up to 50% cheaper. ACMI operators will hire contract crews during peak season and will send them home (off pay) during low season. This leads us to the previously mentioned ridiculous working conditions. A friend sent me a sample of such a contract. Agency located in Dubai, airline registered in Eastern Europe. The crews will be based wherever needed (e.g. in Nigeria). There is no basic pay (unbelievable but true!).

You will only get paid when you actually fly. Your health is insured, but only during working hours. Crew members will end up being away from home for several month in a row earning as much as a junior first officer flying for a “normal” airline. If you are sick, you are off pay. If the aircraft is aog (unserviceable), you are off pay. If you go home to see your family, you of course pay your own ticket and you are off pay as well. In fact you are effectively unemployed whenever you’re stepping out of the airplane. Many younger flight crew where using this criminal practice  especially during times of the pandemic to keep their licenses current and maybe even get quick command hours. Managers love these opportunities, passengers mostly don’t know anything about these conditions.

Did you know that Malta is home to more than 100 airlines?
It‘s the new way of avoiding all sorts of payments. It is also disturbing and makes me think. Moving a business to produce at a lower price seems legit and used to be common practice. Knowingly advertising a product that can’t keep up with the promise is almost criminal. We think about child labor when buying clothes, avoid to buy products from certain countries for reasons of sustainability, we buy fair trade products - but when it comes to air travel it is only the price for the ticket that influences our decision. I rest my case.

SYMBOLBILD Immer mehr "weiße" Flugzeuge sind unterwegs, die bei Bedarf auch von etablierten Carriern samt (günstiger) Besatzung, deren Qualifikation für den Passagier nicht nachvollziehbar ist, angemietet werden.

Next time you buy a ticket you please think twice about what you buy. Safety is advertised everywhere as the number one priority for each and every airline. Of course it is. But a healthy safety culture will not be found in companies that continuously threaten their crews to finish the job. Companies that do not value their  employees and make them pay to work will never get there and should be avoided.

Closing word
I will never blame anyone that is working under these dreadful conditions to provide and support his/her family. I am well aware that we have to (and will) bite the bullet at times. I pull off my head to all the hard working colleagues that spend month away from home just to barely make their living. I will keep on arguing with HR people for simple and easy improvements. Been there, done that and will keep doing it.
Maybe we should remind the public again what it takes to become one of us. So once again, here is a quick round up for you all:

An ATPL today will cost you 100.000 Euro. A type rating for an entry level airliner will be another 20.000 Euro. You get this as well but still need a job. The airline that eventually hires you (interviews and tests will cost you extra) will most likely charge (or bond) you for the required touch and go and line training.

Once you are on the line there will be simulator checks/training every six month. If you have a bad day you may lose the job. The medical check is done every year. Anything wrong with your health (even temporary) might ground you (= off pay). I suggest to get your own loss of license insurance as most of the companies today do not provide them anymore. Say goodbye to your social life. Be ready to lose all your old friends. You will also miss birthdays, family events, your own wedding anniversary. Christmas and/or New Years maybe every two years. You will not get any vacation during peak seasons when your kids are on a summer break, maybe you pop by for a short visit. Duty plans will have you work maximum legal hours today (and more) while assigning minimum legal rest. You hope and pray that your requested off days will be granted for the next roster period to plan a family event. You’ll get very good in dealing with disappointments, because most likely you don’t get those day off. Expect long working days (companies will also always expect you to extend those to „bring it home“). Get a good tablet or laptop to video call your family every now and than (if you have internet at your remote base) a spare cell phone for all the local SIM cards that you buy here and there. Forget about the „romance of flying“. That is Hollywood and long gone.  So, if you ask me, „would you do it again if you had the chance?“

Hell, yeah! I will not disclose why - so that the little man and his ceo friends in those expensive suits don’t get any new ideas ;)

Safe  flying to you all & happy holidays, we‘ll hear you in the air!

Hinweis: „Punktlandungen” sind Kommentare einzelner Autoren, die nicht zwingend die Meinung der Austrian Wings-Redaktion wiedergeben.