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Aviation's Future - Fair or Unfair? Job Cuts and Pay Rates

The furore over possible job losses at British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and other airlines rumbles on.

Whatever the end result, the airline industry worldwide is not going to be the same as it was when the crisis over Covid-19 began.

The Aviation Oracle looks at airline employees other than pilots regarding the question of company loyalty and pay rates.

Above: one of British Airways' Boeing 777s (Kevan James).

Thirty years ago, the airline industry was a pleasant place to work. Salaries, terms and conditions were good – not exceptional, but good enough for most to enjoy a reasonable standard of living. I used to travel to Glasgow each week, and for the £425 round trip fare (take it or leave it) I would be served a hot breakfast on Monday morning, and afternoon tea with tea or coffee on the way back along with alcoholic beverages if I wished.

Things started to change when easyJet, then Go Fly and Ryanair, came onto the scene. The budget carriers offered travel at a fraction of the costs charged by legacy airlines and an inevitable swing started to take place as once loyal and well-paying customers moved their business to the airlines that demanded less money for a seat on their aircraft.

Here’s the thing though. Fundamentally a Boeing 737 costs a budget airline just as much to fly from A to B as it costs a full-service airline to do the same. Sure, the low-fare airlines sweat their assets and get more flying done as a result, but the fuel and the maintenance and the navigation fees are the same. Budget airlines are able to make money while charging low fares for two primary reasons. Firstly they use their assets (the aircraft and their staff) more efficiently – they wring more work, more flying, out of them. And secondly, wherever they can, they pay their staff less – and the terms and conditions are not as good. What were reasonably good jobs – ticket desk and check-in agents, baggage loaders, even cabin crew – were moved towards minimum wage and zero or limited hour contracts, with some of these jobs on the ground at airports farmed out to companies separate from the airline itself. As a result of the £50 round trips, the airline industry became a less pleasant place to work.

Above: the Airbus A380 faces an uncertain future. With some airlines already retiring the type prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, falling demand may see the aircraft permanently grounded (Kevan James)

There were, however, two groups who avoided most of the turmoil and came out of the experience largely unscathed. One was management (the less said about that here the better!), and the other was pilots. The latter came through for several reasons: there was frequently a shortage of fully qualified pilots; the work rules were enshrined in legislation and could not be changed; and they had very strong union representation which strenuously resisted change at every turn. The bottom end became cut-throat as newcomers fought for a place on the ladder, even extending to dubious pay-to-fly arrangements, but at the top end the senior first officers and captains came away with their terms, career prospects – and crucially their pay – largely intact.

So now we have incongruous situations where a Boeing 787 or an Airbus A350 can be loaded by a qualified and trained dispatcher on close to minimum wage, while the captain flying the jet earns a salary well into six figures. Both have a crucial – and critical – role in ensuring the safety of the flight and the well-being of customers, but one might be paid ten times the other. Likewise the cabin crew, on duty for as long as the pilots and again playing a vital role in ensuring customer safety, will take home maybe 10-20% of what the captain receives.

Left: it is not only pilots whose jobs are at risk (Kevan James)

Every time there is a downturn in aviation, staff lose their jobs. I have a huge amount of sympathy for anyone who becomes out of work because of this nasty virus, from the bottom to the top of the tree. But not every trade is unionised. The British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) is a well-funded and very effective union that pushes back and most of the time ensures that on most occasions it seems to be pilots who bear less of the brunt than the other working groups. Don’t get me wrong – I am not anti-union and I very much respect the work they do to preserve the rights of workers. But in the airline industry, the strength of one particular body has created an imbalance that ultimately means some workers pay the price more than others.

And that’s why, when I read the commentary from the wife of a British Airways captain, claiming that her husband is being treated badly after years of loyalty to the business, I start to get annoyed ( That emotive plea did not mention cabin crew, ground crew, engineers or office workers – it was solely about pilots.

I firmly believe that within all trades at BA there are equally loyal employees who have gone out of their way to make the airline the success it is today. There will be staff on the ground that have worked 30 years too, although many may have moved from time to time just to take a small step up the pay ladder. Ironically it is the staff at the bottom of the food chain, living week-to-week on minimum pay, who will suffer the most if they lose their jobs. Those who are paid upwards of £100k a year should be better placed to weather the storm. Many of the jobs at the lower end of the scale in the industry have already been put through the wringer and spat out the other end with worse pay, terms, conditions and prospects. If the few remaining groups – management and pilots – now suffer the same (although probably not on such a devastating scale), then a semblance of balance might just be restored.

Above: BA'S Oneworld partner American Airlines are under the same pressures as all airlines worldwide, including Virgin Atlantic (Heathrow Airport)

The move to cut costs at BA may well be a cynical attempt to reshape the airline and reduce pay rates (not that the latter is possible on some grades), and that should be challenged given the business’s cash position. But to suggest that the pilots alone deserve better is disingenuous.

Every employee at BA deserves more respect than that, whether their job is at risk or not.

Coming Soon:

'So You Want To Start An Airline' by Andy Martin

All the questions and answers about how airlines work

Available now: Aviation books from KJM Today - details on the Home Page

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