At a time when being an airline pilot is as demanding as it has ever been, the image of the job is going down the tubes.
Among the biggest culprits are a number of the world’s most influential pilot associations, including the British BALPA, America’s ALPA, and France’s SNPL, but pilot mass wingeing on global flightcrew forums doesn’t put out good messages either.
The Unions (let’s call them that, not associations) do not attempt to engage with airline management in a positive way that’s good for the business, and are gradually weakening the safety role they used to take so seriously. Of course the unions have an industrial role, but they lead their membership so badly they are not even effective in that. They are merely destructive.
Airline management, farther separated from pilots than it has ever been, sees pilots only as a cost centre, not as the face of their airline, alongside the cabin crew, and the custodians of their most expensive assets.
Of course the security-locked cockpit doors have exacerbated this separation of pilots from their customers, which has an effect on pilot attitudes to their job, and the public’s attitude to pilots – they don’t see them any more.
The fact that modern aeroplanes are more automated than they have ever been does not make them easier to manage in today’s skies, because navigation in busy airspace has to be far more accurate than was required previously. There may be less artisanship required because there is less manual flying to do, but physical artisanship is arguably not a white-collar skill anyway. Sea captains do not handle the wheel, they command their crew and the operation of the entire vessel.
There was always a massive difference between mediocre piloting and the skillful command of an aeroplane, and that remains as true now as it ever was. A modern airliner is more complex than aeroplanes have ever been, and good pilots know much more than just how to fly them. They are there to manage the crew, the passengers, the freight, and their very clever machine that can go wrong too, like the old ones did – if less often. And frequently, like sea captains, they have to do all this in unfriendly weather that will require fine judgements.
The knowledge base required of an airline pilot, by the time he/she is ready for command today, is also as demanding as it has ever been. Astro may have been replaced by GPS and a good multiple IRS, but a good, fully comprehensive pilot training course remains a bachelor’s degree equivalent, and by the time a pilot is ready for command the knowledge base has advanced to master’s degree level.
But these factors have not been acknowledged, partly because a first officer’s licence can be won with less than that, and a captaincy with less than the Master’s equivalent. The airlines that are content to hire pilots who scrape through on minimums are the worst culprits of all in turning piloting into a blue collar job.
In the end, the blue collar/white collar distinction is not just about skills and passing tests, it’s about an attitude to the profession. Many airlines are killing the desire for excellence through the low standards they will accept.
To use a musicianship analogy, anybody can bash out a tune like “chopsticks” on the piano with one hand only and get the notes right, but to play a Beethoven sonata well enough to enthrall an audience is in a different league. Aeroplanes, like musical instruments, can be “played” adequately or brilliantly.
Airlines pay the price for this downgrading of a profession that, at its best, is a noble one. They pay the price not just in lowered safety standards, but also in poor performance that costs them money every day in lost fuel, lost time, and additional maintenance. And remedial training.
Piloting best practice and how to ensure your airline enjoys the benefits of it is the theme of the Flight International Crew Management Conference in London on 30 November-1 December 2009.