Piloting is going blue-collar

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 Astro may have been replaced by GPS and a good multiple IRS, but a good, fully comprehensive pilot training course remains a bachelor’s degree equivalent, and by the time a pilot is ready for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



11 Responses to Piloting is going blue-collar

  1. Ibrahim Khalid 27 December, 2008 at 7:23 am #

    I, for one, am glad that the issue has come to light; i.e. at least, people in that part of the world where humans started taking to the skies in flying machines have begun noticing that it requires more than the skill to physically handle an aeroplane, to command a modern airliner.

    Unfortunately, this is not the case in some parts of the world. I am not a pilot and, maybe, this is why, I always advocate, that even monkeys can be trained to handle aeroplanes but they must never be made captains on commercial aircraft, even with excelllent handling abilities

    In summary, what I am trying to say is, it has become very easy for an enthusiastic teenager with adequate finance to acquire a commercial pilot’s licence but to take up flying as a carrier, a basic education, at least, up to high school level is a must.

    Am I wrong?

  2. David Learmount 27 December, 2008 at 10:46 pm #

    In my experience you are right. A good commercial pilot must, before pilot training begins, have the level of general education that would have fitted him/her for university/college, even if he/she chooses to take commercial pilot licence studies instead of a degree course.

  3. Russ White 28 December, 2008 at 2:49 am #

    I have been frustrated over this very subject for several years now. I’m finding problems in the cockpit with First Officers who don’t understand basic principles. I have to remember these guys have only spent about 150 hours in ground school compared to us “old” pilots who completed a Bachelor’s degree in aviation. I am now seeing FAA inspectors suffering from the same problem. If these inspectors and First Officers do not have a background in aviation, they cannot make decisions based on the purpose and intent of our regulations and procedures. My worry is if we have an accident caused by a pilot who lacks this education, our wonderful leaders will simply write more regulation, then proclaim the problem fixed.

    One solution to this issue is to make the ATP rating a Bachelor’s degree, not a license and require graduates to pass board exams much like doctors and accountants. I see a similar system in place in Europe and it is working well.

    Most people don’t understand the frustration older pilots have when dealing with a young though well meaning pilot who simply does not have an education. In today’s more complex world, it is imperative we raise standards before we have an accident caused by a flight crew who lacks a basic education. The next few years may prove our argument correct as we see these next generation pilots promoted to Captain and our younger FAA inspectors taking positions of authority. I keep hoping our leaders will see and address this problem, but so far we have been ignored.

  4. Robert Mark 31 December, 2008 at 3:33 am #

    As a former airline guy, I think the profession has been blue collar for a long time now. But let me also say that I don’t mean that to sound as if I’m slighting folks who work for an hourly wage, because I don’t. It’s a reflection of the work style.

    Pilots are unionized folks who are told when to show up for work, what to do and where to go. Each extra hour they work, they’re paid more. Sounds blue collar to me.

    And worst of all, if a professional pilot gets canned from one airline, neither their degree, nor their experience count for a thing. That’s not professional or blue collar. It’s simply what we’ve all become used to.

    My guess is the job of flying airplanes for a living will continue to evolve into whatever everyone has allowed it to become.

  5. jbzoom 31 December, 2008 at 9:32 am #

    For most of the half-century I can remember being an airline passenger, increased access to both the front and the back of aeroplanes by ordinary people (or even women!) has provoked “going to the dogs” nonsense of this sort. Look at the the crew response to last years BA 777 prang, or especially Virgin’s 1997 A340 Heathrow incident, to see what levels of professionalism are now applied to emergencies. Contrast this with the crew response in BEA’s 1972 Trident loss or BMI’s 1989 Kegworth episode and you should appreciate how much better things have got. Much of this is better training, some of it may be better crew selection. But, at least in the UK, changes in the background of flight crews don’t seem to affect things negatively, apart perhaps from the grammar of in-flight announcements.

  6. jbzoom 31 December, 2008 at 9:47 am #

    To pick up on another of your assertions “…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…” as if this were some recent development.

    Actually BALPA has been wingeing about pilot pay and conditions for almost all of the 70 years it’s been in existence and Flight has been wingeing about BALPA just as long. For example in the Autumn 1949 Flight was taking BALPA to task on its then current campaign and BALPA was accusing Flight of attempting to deny that piloting was a profession. (See issues between October and December 1949).

    The right sort of person to fly a plane is the one who understands how and why it works and can react correctly and predictably in emergencies. Airlines quite reasonably aim to find and train such persons in the most cost-effective way possible. The persons seek to be paid the most they can get for what they do. The more things change, the more they stay the same…

  7. flipseal 11 February, 2009 at 12:11 pm #


    You have raised an interesting point for discussion but perhaps you have hit the nail on the head when you mention that airlines see pilots as

    “a cost centre, not as the face of their airline, alongside the cabin crew, and the custodians of their most expensive assets.”

    Therin lies the rub – if crews are TREATED like blue-collar workers then no matter what their salary, education, training or background, then they will BEHAVE like blue-collar workers. Of course, from the airline executives’ point of view, everything is the other way around! Hence the reason why our unions (still) end up in conflict with the management.

    This is a bit of a ‘chicken-and-egg’ syndrome. So who is right, management or the workforce?

    To answer this conundrum, let us use an human-factors/CRM analogy:

    Within the confines of an aircraft (or ship), it is the captain’s responsibility to ‘lead from the front’, to set a good example and engender improved co-operation and communication, therefore ensuring that steep authority-gradients are avoided; all of which are conducive to better teamwork and will increase the cahnces of a safe flight (or voyage). In other words, it is the captain who “sets the tone”.

    Therefore, within the airline as a whole, It is arguable that, in a similar way, it is the responsibility of the executives to “set the tone”.

    However, I would argue that this is most rare. Instead, a mutual ‘feeling of distrust’ is common between the crews and the executives. Perhaps this because crews perceive company executives, not as leaders but as account managers who “know the price of everything and value of nothing” and few of whom exhibit the NOTECHS or soft skills that are the bedrock of a good team/crew. I would be very suprised to find that this is a misconception on my part because there is plenty of evidence ut there that suggests such a view.

    As you well know, Crew Resource Management (CRM) and human-factors are not just confined to the aircraft. Awareness of these elemental techniques and skills have been ‘exported’ to many other industries with notable success but somehow they never quite find their way into the ‘corridors of power’. It would be interesting to study how many airline executives actually employ a human-factors approach to their ‘captaincy’ of their own organisation?

    In my experience, such an appproach has been suggested from time to time but on the one occasion to which I was witness, the executives used the CRM sessions with the crews as an opportunity to ‘transmit’ rather than to ‘receive’; sadly they had missed the point of it all and, as a result, set the wrong tone!

    However, crews are not perfect either – their own pre-conceived ideas often interfere with management attempts to communicate and sometimes crews do not grasp or in some cases, are not privy to the ‘big picture’, which has a distinctively commerical bias – and rightly so; airlines are not charities.

    Fortunately, there have also been occasions when individual managers ‘walk the walk’ and their relationships with their ‘crews’ is more of an alliance than a hierarchy, which is built on trust. In my present organisation, this very much better than in others for whom I have worked. As a result, safety, morale and efficiency are more tangibly mature and improved teamwork seems more ingrained into the company ethos than I have seen previously. That is not to say that there is no room for improvement but other organisations have rarely had a level of trust.

    Perhaps now it is time that human-factors and CRM awareness and training should be mandated for airline executives and managers, as well as for the crews with whom they work? If the executives took more of a lead and set a better tone from the outset, while trying to foster more trust between the two parties, then perhaps the crews would not ‘feel’ like blue-collar workers within ‘a cost centre’ and behave more like members of a happy and efficient crew. In turn, I am sure that organisational efficiency and profits would only improve.


  8. Intex Air Mattress 31 January, 2010 at 9:19 pm #

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  9. Bridging 10 February, 2010 at 4:27 pm #

    There is openly plenty to know about it. I think above we can find excellent points. If you think nobody cares if you’re alive, try missing a couple of payments.

  10. Anthony Loans 22 February, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    Marriage is a three ring circus: an engagement ring, a wedding ring, and suffering

  11. Lauren Satchell 28 November, 2010 at 7:32 am #

    My aim is to be a pilot. I will achieve my dreams no matter how much of difficulty face in my life.