No promotions and forced to load bags: why pilots are preparing to strike

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The past couple of years have been torrid for the airline industry, which has been hit by not only the pandemic but also its aftermath, as fragmented Covid rules and widespread layoffs contributed to confusion and delays, even as the industry began to return.

In the UK, where a lack of security and ground staff has caused long delays just as many people plan their first overseas holiday since the summer of 2019, airports are anticipating a summer of chaos. Heathrow, where check-in staff voted in favour of strikes yesterday (23 June), has forced airlines to cancel 10 per cent of flights from two of its terminals because of a shortage of baggage handlers; in Edinburgh, one pilot recently found himself loading baggage onto his plane. A spokesman for his airline, Edelweiss Air, told the Mirror: “We Swiss are helpful and always try to be on time.” 

Pilots on many airlines are expected to strike as well. The job of a commercial airline pilot includes long hours, a rigorous focus on safety and is often listed among the most stressful occupations. Today, that stress is compounded by a lack of job security: according to one survey, a fifth of pilots are unemployed.

One pilot at a major international airline, who spoke to the New Statesman on the condition of anonymity, said the pandemic had led to a substantial salary cut and set his career back several years. He warned that delays, which are in part a legacy of bad planning during the pandemic, are likely to continue.

The pilot, who is based outside Europe and flies wide-bodied passenger and freight planes, said that when Covid hit the number of hours he flew dropped dramatically. “I was flying every two weeks, whereas normally I’d be flying much more than that,” he said. 

His airline made “hundreds” of people redundant. “It was very stressful. In every airline around you, your friends, the people you trained with, were losing their jobs. In our airline, every month we were getting emails and we didn’t know what the criteria was – we couldn’t predict it, it seemed random to us who was losing their job and who wasn’t.”

His pay was cut substantially. “We got a significant pay cut for six months,” the pilot said. Although pilots aren’t exactly on the poverty line – one survey has put their average salary at just over £92,000 – he said that in his region his pay packet had often been hard won: “I’d worked at a pretty crazy airline before this one, one where the pay wouldn’t come on time, or you’d have to fight for it. Since that job, I manage my finances such that my outgoings are low and manageable.”

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While airlines provide company accommodation, he chose to live somewhere cheap and use his accommodation allowance to top up his pay. During the pandemic, as the airline made redundancies, it also scrapped his housing allowance and moved him into a company-owned home. This amounted to “a massive pay cut”.

According to research by Flight Global, a publisher, 20 per cent of trained pilots are unemployed, while 75 per cent said they would take a pay cut for a new opportunity. “After two years without a salary and a family with two children, yes, even a salary pay cut could be very welcome… unfortunately,” said one respondent to its survey. 

For the pilot, the pandemic set back his career progression by a number of years. He is a first officer and would have expected to have progressed to captain by now, but the lack of expansion at his airline since the pandemic has meant it has stopped recruiting. “Most people went from first officer to captain in about four and a half years – for me, I’ve done six years now, and they’re still saying maybe another year or two,” he said. “They just don’t need more captains. They’re not going to promote any first officers to captains, even if we meet the criteria that’s required.”

He said that even outside of the UK passengers should expect delays to their flights over the coming months. “There’s are additional procedures in place for some destinations,” he said. “At check-in gates, they need to check your PCR or vaccination certificate. Some of them have QR codes or you have to download apps. In Thailand, for example, you have to fill out all these online forms before departure, and all these things need to be checked and rechecked, so there’s a significant increase in the work that needs to be done in the airport. And then you factor in the staff shortages – and of course, the end result is delays.”

What would it take for him to jump out of the cockpit and start loading baggage into the hold, like the Swiss pilot in Edinburgh? He laughed. “I have done that in the UK, up in Scotland, on a smaller aircraft. The ground handlers were refusing due to outbreaks of snow, so I went out and slung on the last couple of pieces, closed the door, and then we could go,” he said. “In those circumstances there’s a lot of pressure for the flight to go ahead, whether that’s personal pressure because they want to get home or whether that’s corporate pressure. Personally, for my aircraft it’s just not physically possible for me to do that. It requires equipment and trained staff.” Which suggests that there are no easy solutions to this summer’s travel chaos.

[See also: Where does public opinion stand on the rail strikes?

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