Pilots as commodities

Earlier this year, still under the heady influence of the sustained boom in global commercial air transport, the chief executive of Swiss Aviation Training Manfred Brennwald said he was worried about the prospect of a general acceptance that pilot quality would inevitably suffer as a result of the demand for sheer quantity.

The industry, he said, has a responsibility to “polish the image the pilot profession has” to ensure quality students are attracted to an airline career. He was worried that pilots are becoming regarded as just “a commodity”.

Brennwald’s absolutely right: the risk of many airlines hiring low quality pilots has always been there, but it is heightened at a time of high demand. The Flight Safety Foundation and the International Air Transport Association have voiced the same concern. It may all seem a bit surreal now that pilots are being laid off instead of hired, but the cycle will swing up again in a year or two and the industry will once again be scrabbling for a diminished supply of flightcrew.

Meanwhile, judging from the adversarial relationship significant numbers of airlines have with their pilot workforce, pilots are considered a commodity. It’s also axiomatic that if that’s how pilots are regarded and treated, it’s how they will behave and perform, which reinforces the airline’s conception of them as commodities. It’s a self-fulfilling management behavioural pattern.

In the preceding blog I promised a look at alternatives to airline flying for aspiring pilots on the basis that the training cost leaves new pilots with a financial millstone around their neck for years, the job is unstable, it provides an appalling quality of life, and wrecks families.

I’d advise any aspiring pilot today to go for military flight training – during which you get paid well. It’s obviously up to you whether you can square the job with your personal ideals, but if you can, you’ll become far more versatile than an ab-initio airline pilot’s training would ever make you. Then, when you exit, don’t go for the airlines, get a job as a business or corporate pilot, or go into a training organisation. Either way you get paid well, but with corporate flying you get far more job variety and quality, and a more benign lifestyle. With training you get satisfying flying, but you also get to see your family.

Until airline boards and human resources departments actually take a serious look at what they expect and demand of their pilots, they will not attract the best, or if they occasionally do, they will not retain them. A few carriers do manage their pilots well, but most only think they do.

Incidentally, this sort of stuff is just one of the issues that will be analysed and debated at Flight International’s Crew Management Conference in Dubai.