With many carriers struggling to fill flightdecks and retain staff, the first woman to lead the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) is taking command at a time when her members arguably have the whip hand when it comes to negotiating pay and conditions. “Pilots are in a strong position at the moment,” states Amy Leversidge, who took up her role in January.

Amy Leversidge Headshot

Source: BALPA

Leversidge says the profession remains difficult to access for those without access to family funds

It is a very different scene to the one her predecessor faced just three or four years ago, when mass groundings led redundant pilots to retire early or find what work they could, including as grocery delivery drivers. BALPA infuriated the flight school community by advising young people not to embark on pilot training courses because the profession faced such an uncertain future.

The rapid recovery in demand for air travel might have surprised the union, just as it caught the airframers on the hop. Leversidge – previously general secretary at the FDA union for civil service top managers – welcomes the change in fortunes for her members but refuses to get carried away about the market, given continuing global economic and supply chain challenges.

She argues that the acute pilot shortage in the USA and certain parts of the world is not mirrored in the UK and Europe. She also believes the industry still faces entrenched structural challenges, including the cost of becoming a pilot, and often poor working conditions for female flightcrew – which contribute to a lack of diversity and gender imbalance in the profession.

While she welcomes last year’s launch of British Airways’ cadet programme – the first it has run this century – she says the $150,000-plus cost of most training courses puts the profession out of reach of almost every young person who cannot access “the bank of mum and dad”. This restricts the pipeline of pilots that a strategically vital sector like aviation relies on, she says.

BALPA, which with 10,000 members claims to represent 85% of UK career pilots, has also urged ministers to introduce “credit card-style” protections for students whose training schools go bust. This follows two high-profile collapses in 2023, which left dozens deep in debt and without a qualification. However, it is unclear how such a scheme would be funded.

While Leversidge says BALPA wants to encourage more young people into the profession she urges her would-be future members to carry out extensive due diligence on prospective flying schools, and consider how much they are investing. “We feel we have a responsibility to be honest and to tell them to think about the cost and the risks very carefully,” she says.

Leversidge is the first female general secretary in BALPA’s 86-year history. She is not a pilot, having spent her career with trade unions and professional associations, something she has in common with almost all her recent predecessors. Former British Airways Airbus A380 captain Martin Chalk, who held the position from 2021 to 2023, was an exception.

While BALPA – as its name suggests – primarily represents airline pilots, its first high profile dispute under Leversidge is with a helicopter operator. BALPA members have for a year been in unresolved pay negotiations with US-owned firm Bristow Helicopters– which provides search and rescue services on behalf of HM Coastguard as well as servicing North Sea rigs for the oil and gas sector.

Pilots and specialist crews had threatened to begin a three-day strike on 3 March but called it off as a mark of respect following the crash of a Bristow Norway-operated Sikorsky S-92 in the sea off Bergen the previous week in which a crew member died. However, BALPA says further three-day walkouts will go ahead later in the month unless there is a resolution.

It is not the first time Leversidge – who insists every effort will be made to avoid any risk to the public by ensuring some search and rescue bases remain operational during strike days – has been at the centre of a sensitive dispute involving employees who provide safety-critical public services.

In 2014, while working at the Royal College of Midwives, she led their 2014 pay campaign, which saw the first ever ballot for industrial action in the body’s 134-year history. This too meant coming up with ways that midwives could take industrial action safely without compromising care to mothers.

With exceptions – including two fiery run-ins with British Airways before and after the pandemic – relations between BALPA and employers have been largely benign. The union has mainly positioned itself on the same side as the rest of the industry, championing safety, access to the profession, and resisting over-zealous environmental measures that might damage businesses.

However, the Bristow dispute shows that when demand for aviators is outpacing supply, and pilots, like others in society, are facing rising cost of living pressures, BALPA’s members are prepared to take the ultimate step by withdrawing their labour. The union’s ballot for industrial action returned a more than 96% yes vote from almost 93% of those eligible to take part.

“Our door remains open and we urge the company to listen to its employees and come to us with a credible offer so that we can call off the strike,” she says.