Destination breaking point

Pilots are speaking out over the increasing pressures put upon them amid the recent spate of airline disasters to hit the headlines. Stuart Qualtrough reports.

  • E-Mail
By  Stuart Qualtrough Published  September 4, 2005

Destination breaking point|~|36-42-Feature-Pic-Aviation-.jpg|~|DOWN TO EARTH: A recent spat of airline disasters have put the industry under the spotlight. |~|FOLLOWING one of the worst months in recent years for air crashes, pilots have taken the unprecedented step of speaking out about the commercial pressures they are increasingly facing in the job. Last year was declared as the safest in the history of air travel with 428 fatalities but already this year the global death toll from a spate of commercial air crashes is more than 550. Now pilots in Belgium have for the first time described how financial pressures are forcing them to keep the planes in the sky, even if the aircraft are suffering minor technical malfunctions. And confidence and morale is especially low amongst UK pilots as scores fear for their future financial security as they tackle fresh challenges and demands on top of their already pressure-filled roles. The pressures are compounded by the “bean counters” who are driving for maximum cost efficiency to increase the profit margins, or in some cases, lower the losses. Earlier this year, new EU legislation was introduced that forced air carriers to pay passengers considerably more compensation if a flight is delayed or cancelled. As a result, the financial squeeze is being passed onto plane crews to ensure schedules are maintained and hold ups are kept to an absolute minimum. Writing in the Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad, former Sabena pilot Filip van Rossum, claimed: “The commercial pressures on the shoulders of pilots has increased enormously. “The profit margins in the aviation sector are paper-thin, the competition is fierce and the aviation industry is sensitive to rising oil prices. Keeping a plane on the ground costs money and aviation bosses want their pilots to keep their planes flying for as long as possible.” Van Rossum spoke out after a Helios Airways’ Boeing 737 slammed into a hillside near the Greek capital Athens, killing all 121 people onboard. An initial investigation blamed the crash on the sudden loss of cabin pressure. Helios confirmed there had been previous problems with the plane’s air pressure system and the mother of one of the dead pilots said she believed her son may have been aware of the glitch before taking off. Just days later, 160 people were killed when a plane belonging to the Columbia-based West Caribbean Airways crashed in Venezuela after both engines failed. It later emerged the aircraft had been flying continuously for 20 hours as the rest of the company’s fleet was grounded to undergo urgent maintenance work. The Colombian Pilots’ Association said its members had repeatedly warned the country’s Civil Aeronautics Board about the company’s inadequate safety procedures. The airline had been put on “special watch” because of apparent financial difficulties and had been fined on several occasions for offences ranging from pilots not getting sufficient rest between flights to a lack of proper aircraft maintenance and pilot training. Now with the introduction of the new EU regulations, industry experts fear the spectre of passenger compensation could result in pilots with major scheduled airlines coming under added pressure to cut corners for commercial gain. And the threat will compound the industry that is already suffering from a crisis of morale and confidence. One UK-based pilot told Arabian Business: “I can’t think of any other career that carries such responsibility and yet the rewards are so derisory. Many of my passengers now believe we just press a few buttons and the computers kick-in, take off, cruise to the destination and land the plane. “However, the reality is very different, everyday, the slightest misjudgment or mistake could be calamitous. Not only with regards to human life, which is extremely rare, but also in financial terms. “For example, if we take-off or land at too high an angle, the tail section can scrape along the runway and that’s a mistake that costs my company about £1.2 million [US$2.14 million] and takes a plane out of service for a week.” He added: “My job carries such responsibility and yet carries such a lack of management support and me and many of colleagues believe the future is only going to get bleaker.” The former RAF pilot with over 20 years’ flying experience claims his disposable income is being slashed and he is pessimistic that things are going to change. He said: “I earn around £75,000 [US$133,670] a year, but I have a wife and four children to support. My job is to fly holidaymakers from the UK. However, I have no money at the end of the month to take my own family on holiday. “It is frustrating flying to all those fabulous resorts around the Mediterranean and knowing I can’t afford to take my own children there. But then what can I do about it? I’m working in the aviation industry, a sector that has still to make a profit from the day the Wright brothers first took to the skies.” He added that realistically he has 20 years left in the cockpit, but in order to match the pensions of current retiring pilots, who have final salary packages, he would have to invest £1.2 million [US$2.14 million] of his own salary. “How on earth am I going to achieve that? “There is a great sense of injustice and resentment. A lot of my colleagues feel the same way as me and a lot of us are looking at other ways of securing our future, like property investment.” The pilot, who works for one of the UK’s leading charter airlines, described an overnight Boeing 757 flight from Tenerife that almost ended in disaster when one of the plane’s two engines failed. “It was something that we train in the simulators for,” he explained. “A radio message was sent out and the plane was brought down at the nearest airport, which at that point in the flight was Faro in Portugal. “Because of the nature of the emergency as soon as the plane came to a halt, the emergency chutes were deployed and the passengers and crew were evacuated. No one was injured and it was a text-book response from start to finish.” As a thank you message to his crew, the hero pilot bought a round of drinks for them at the hotel bar later that night. However, his act of skill and professionalism was rewarded with a letter from head office carrying the threat of disciplinary proceedings because the bar bill for the drinks had been put on his company credit card. “It really was a once in a career moment,” he added. “It very rarely happens but when it does you feel good you have brought 230 or so passengers safely down from an emergency at 35,000 feet. “It would have been nice to have been recognised, but to have been threatened with disciplinary proceedings over a US$62 bar bill just sums up the way the airlines treat and deal with their pilots. “You just have to look at the online pilot message boards to measure the level of dissatisfaction. I’m certain you won’t find such bad feeling in any other profession like law, medicine or journalism.” Under the new EU rules, airlines must refund passengers the full cost of their tickets as well as flying them home, if a delay last longer than five hours. They are also obliged to meet hotel costs if the delay continues overnight. Industry observers believe in some cases the cost of a cancelled flight could go above US$178,000. British Airways admitted the recent wildcat strike by caterers cost US$53.5 million after they were forced to cancel 700 flights, disrupting the journeys of 100,000 travellers. BA chiefs described the unofficial industrial action, which was unconnected to flying practices, as a “body blow that defies belief”. Last week UK engineers said that the economic pressures on European aircraft maintenance are putting passengers’ lives at risk and contributing to an increasing number of “incidents”. “The financial wizards are running the show, to the detriment of safety,” Robert Alway, a spokesman for the Association of Licensed Aircraft Engineers (ALAE), said. “In a never-ending quest to save money, maintenance is being squeezed to the limit. Reports are showing that incidents [such as minor technical defaults] are on the increase: incidents are a short step away from accidents. “Some engineers have complained of being coerced into overlooking faults and releasing an aircraft back into service against their wishes, after being threatened with losing their job. ‘Sign it or I will get someone else to’ is more common than most industry observers would like to admit,” he added. It is legal for an aircraft to depart with minor faults as long as they remain within the Minimum Equipment List, which states which faults can go unserviced and for how long, but Alway argues that the lists of problems are getting longer. “This could mean that in an emergency the pilots are put under more stress because one system or more is not available,” he added. The European Commission announced last week that it was considering publishing a blacklist of airlines and aircraft subject to bans or restrictions in any of the EU’s 25 member states. However, Alway said that such a list would be of little help to passengers. “If passengers did react to a safety record when making the decision over who to fly with, then unfortunately that would indicate that it is too late and innocent people have already suffered.” He added that most air travellers will remain unaware of the standards of the airline’s safety and maintenance checks. “The average passenger is oblivious to an ever-growing list of defects, such as delayed engine maintenance or ignored corrosion,” he said. Now many see the Middle East, the Emirates in particular, as a calm sanctuary for pilots with attractive salary packages and the realistic chance of fast-track promotions. Captain Alan Stealy, senior vice president of flight operations at Emirates said the company employs 1200 pilots from 60 countries, with 200 from the UK alone, and the demand for qualified pilots was greater than ever before. He said the uneasy market in Europe and the US was an advantage for the Dubai-based carrier as they could continue to attract the best pilots to plug the vacancy gaps. “In Europe and the US, in particular, time to command is very long at the moment, and there is no expansion,” he added. “Those airlines are going in the opposite direction to us. The prospects for first officers, particularly in the States and Canada, are not good, so we have an advantage there. “Dubai’s lovely, why would you want to work anywhere else? I suspect there will be some expat pilots going to China and there may well be some going in India, but I suspect the attractions of Dubai itself gives us the advantage. “The US, in particularly, but Canada as well, the airlines there are pretty unstable at the moment in terms of the future. Changes in terms of conditions are encouraging US pilots to apply [to us]. As one area expands, there are other areas releasing pilots. Scandinavian Airlines laid off some pilots not that long ago, and we picked up quite a few.” But despite the optimistic outlook in the Middle East, one industry insider told Arabian Business: “Not everyone can be based in the Middle East and some serious work has to be done swiftly to support [the] disintegrating management-labour issue.” ||**||

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code