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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 September 2018

Pilots in high demand as air traffic soars

Low-cost carriers could feel squeeze as flyers now able to pick and choose who they work for

Pilot Brooke Castillo, left, gives instructions to her first officer before a flight from Iloilo international airport in the Philippines to Manila. Pilots arwe now in higher demand as traffic surges.
Pilot Brooke Castillo, left, gives instructions to her first officer before a flight from Iloilo international airport in the Philippines to Manila. Pilots arwe now in higher demand as traffic surges.

An increase in global air traffic means pilots are in high demand and are now often in a position to choose to work for airlines offering better wages or working conditions, a situation that could crimp some low-cost airlines.

The rising demand for cockpit crew is linked to a wave of retirements of baby boomers and the growth of air traffic, which the International Air Transport Association (Iata) expects to nearly double to 7.8 billion passengers in 2036.

"What is certain is that there is a shortage" of cockpit personnel and they are now "going to the airline which offers the best conditions", Marc Houalla, who was the head of France's national civil aviation institute (Enec) until mid-October, tells AFP.

The shifting of the winds in the labour market began to be felt two or three years ago when US airlines sought to lure away pilots, said one pilot on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile Chinese airlines are offering "salaries that are a bit insane", he added.

China is expected to dethrone the United States as the world's biggest air travel market in 2022, according to Iata.

"I get emails telling me 'We've improved out conditions, we're paying more than €300,000 [Dh1.2 million]" for a captain, he added.

He preferred to join Air France - even though he said it paid €1,500 per month less - because of the work-life balance.

The shortage of pilots has reached the point where they have lured away instructors at pilot schools like Enac, said Mr Houalla.

Even Air France, an airline that had a hiring freeze for seven years as it struggled to reduce its costs to face the onslaught from low-cost airlines, has started hiring again.

It now plans to hire 200 to 250 pilots per year through 2025, according to its HR chief for pilots, Didier Nicolini.

The pilots it hires are attracted to the "overall benefits package" offered by Air France, he said, and come from not only Ryanair but easyJet and others as well.

For Germany's Lufthansa, which has snapped up half of the aircraft of failed rival Air Berlin and wants parts of defunct Alitalia, the question of securing pilots has become an existential question.

A sign of its desperation - it offered a signing bonus of €20,000 for the first 15 pilots that accepted to fly the aircraft it took over from Air Berlin in order to ensure it did not need to cancel any flights.

However, with salaries among the top airlines in Europe at up to €200,000 per year before taxes, it has a narrow path to navigate if it does not want to weaken its competitiveness against low-cost airlines.

Over the longer term, Lufthansa has committed to hiring 700 newly-trained pilots through 2022.

But one pilot noted that bubbles tend to pop.

"Any increase in flights by low-cost airlines will be at the expense of traditional airlines," said Pierre Coursimault, an easyJet pilot and a member of the SNPL, pointing to the recent surprise collapse of Britain's Monarch airline.

Low-cost Irish carrier Ryanair, meanwhile, is coming under heavy fire from pilots uneasy with its management style and working conditions, just as complaints from passengers incensed by its mass cancellations last month start to ease off.

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Read more:

UK's easyJet to take bust Air Berlin's leases and Berlin slot

As Air Berlin's final flight depart, demand remains for low fares

Mixed reaction to Air France's new airline

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In a company that does not recognise any official union, pilots have been taking to social media over the past week to call for dialogue, and to share their anger at a management class they accuse of disdain.

"There's an obvious haemorrhaging of pilots," said one former Ryanair co-pilot who recently left for another airline and agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

"They leave because they're fed up with being treated like numbers", he said, condemning "the management's terror regime".

"The problem was brewing and it just took a spark to set the whole thing alight," he said of the thousands of cancelled flights, which the company's brash director general Michael O'Leary blamed on glitches in holiday leave planning.

Ryanair management denied these "hearsay claims" and pointed out that all 86 of Ryanair's air bases have elected pilot representatives, who are able to enter into negotiations without "fear or terror".

Internally, the exclusive reliance on employee representation committees (ERC) for dialogue is heavily questioned.

Pilots active on the Aviation Professionals Unite website say they have sent their boss a letter from 60 ERCs to ask for the creation of a pan-European body to represent all pilots.

Ryanair management has dismissed the move as an "anonymous letter" sent by competitor pilot unions.

Amid a global surge in demand for pilots, Europe's largest carrier advertised that its pilots will earn "22 per cent more than Jet2, 20 per cent more than Norwegian" through its suggested annual pay increase of thousands of euros.

Pilots said employees including flight attendants, ground crew and administrative staff had issues with management.

"For most pilots, the problem is not financial," said a Ryanair pilot earning €5,400 a month. "It's more that the system makes us tired and demotivated."

The pilot is one of many to condemn the two-tier system in which the company's 4,000 pilotsoperate.

While some are directly employed by Ryanair, with contracts signed in the countries where they are based, others are self-employed through a multitude of Irish structures and therefore lose out on healthcare and pension benefits.

This is straight-forward "social barbarism", according to the pilot, although Ryanair says it employs pilots in "exactly the same way" as its low-cost rivals.

"Ryanair makes the most of this to keep its system standing on fear and I've seen tired, sick guys fly a plane", the pilot added, something the company firmly denies.

While the vast majority of Ryanair pilots who come forward do so anonymously, Imelda Comer, a Dublin-based pilot preparing to leave the company after a decade of service, went on the record in a public letter to the company's boss in an attempt to prompt action.

She said the offers made by Ryanair "do not reflect any of the concerns or requirements set out by the pilots; are confusing and in some places potentially misleading".

Management said it would not respond to letters "from a pilot who has resigned".

The European Cockpit Association launched a campaign on Thursday to support pilots who speak out about working conditions, as well as a crowd sourced fund designed to act as a "safety net" for those who lose their jobs as a consequence.

Simultaneously, the British Airline Pilots' Association has launched a survey among Ryanair pilots asking whether they would be prepared to support industrial action.

A 32-year-old company experiencing such regular and "colossal" staff turnover is "obviously at a pivotal moment of its existence", said Christophe Tharot, the head of France's SNPL pilots union, adding that Ryanair's employment system was based on "pressure and omerta (a code of silence)".

"Any pilot is free to leave Ryanair if he/she so wishes," responded the company.

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