Pilot mercenaries

There’s definitely a place in the industry for contract crews, whether they are pilots or maintenance engineers.

But when an airline requires its permanent, home-based pilots to be self-employed and uses an agency to carry out the rather vestigial remaining Human Resources function, it is reasonable to ask what kind of a relationship the pilots have with their de facto employer, and whether it’s a healthy one.

This is what happens at Ryanair and Norwegian Air Shuttle, both very commercially successful low-cost carriers. Passengers like their low prices and flock to fly with them. Maybe this is the employment model of the future.

About a year ago several Ryanair crews declared full “mayday” fuel emergencies in Spanish airspace when the weather got marginal and diversions were necessary. The event was a bonanza for both the local and international media, and parliamentary questions were asked in Spain. It was not a good time for Ryanair.

But nobody had been hurt, and Ryanair had complied with operational obligations. In the legal sense, the airline was watertight, and it took successful legal action against some media organisations for their reporting of the events.

Then time passed, the press lost interest, and any passengers that had begun to doubt Ryanair’s priorities forgot about it and went gratefully back to cheap flying again.

The reason I mention the Spain incidents is that the questions that were asked – by the press and investigators – about Ryanair allegedly putting pressure on its pilots not to carry contingency fuel – provided an insight into the relationship the media have with the low cost carriers, but particularly with Ryanair.

The media activity surrounding Ryanair at that time is nothing compared with what would happen if – heaven forbid – the airline had a serious accident and people got hurt. The scrutiny of Ryanair’s relationship with its pilots would go much deeper, and not just by the press.

Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary does not cut corners on aircraft maintenance, crew recurrent training, or operational discipline, but he – and his Norwegian counterpart – are pushing their luck on human factors when they employ pilots like a warlord employs mercenaries.

Just because you can get away with doing something doesn’t make it a good system.

The question, Michael, is this: 

Is it worth it? 

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2 Responses to Pilot mercenaries

  1. airobserver 30 May, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    Fairly nice and well written.
    I remember having written an article on the Spanish May Day case few months ago but yours really points out a growing issue.

    Looking forward to talking with you about this “mercenarization” and the impacts it generates on safety.

    Best regards

  2. Adam 16 August, 2013 at 1:05 am #

    I don’t believe that this employment model is sustainable – but the supply/demand equation is supporting it at the moment. It will be interesting to see whether or not it survives the forthcoming tightening of the labour market.
    There is one major difference between Ryanair and Norwegian; at Norwegian the agency supplied crew are employees of the agencies concerned and not working as freelance/self-employed/Ltd Company structures.

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