Labour disputes are back on the agenda around the world as pilots attempt to claw back the wage concessions made after the last recession. But as the familiar labour rituals are played out, could it be time for a more fundamental rethink of how pilots are engaged with the business?

It could all be summed up by a single image - a long line of Cathay Pacific pilots trooping to a mass union meeting. What started a year or so ago with labour action at the US majors has since gone global. While a few eyebrows may have been raised at the extent of the action (and certainly at the size of some of the settlements), this round of pilot wage negotiations is not much different from any other. Pilot unrest has, it seems, become accepted as an inevitable, if unfortunate, fact of airline life. Perhaps it is time to step back and ask why?

The pilots wending their way to strike meetings are not, after all, the disenfranchised workforce of some smokestack industry fighting with their bosses to raise the minimum wage. These are highly paid and, for the most part, highly motivated professionals, with stable careers and in command of some of the world's most advanced technology. It is hard to think of any other professional group which so regularly punishes its employer with strike action. In fact, it is hard to think of a blue collar workforce in the recent past which has been so consistently militant.

The desire for better pay and conditions is, of course, the presenting problem. But in reality the issue goes much deeper. Pilots hold a deep-seated suspicion of airline management, built on years of mutual mistrust. You do not have to go any further than the online pilot chat rooms to feel the level of bitterness about decisions taken above. For its part, airline management has been tempted to see pilots as an unpredictable and difficult group of individuals.

In part, the problem is institutional. Wage negotiations are stuck in a rigid cycle which invites confrontation. Pilots make wage concessions in the bad times only to claw them back again in the good. The game on both sides is to give as little as possible. The mechanics of the negotiating ritual are also rigidly laid down and even occasionally involve intervention from government.

Airline structures too do not help. While to the outside world airlines may look like modern creatures, those that work in them know that they can be as monolithic as any smokestack factory. It is put well by Jospeh Schwieterman, who directs the Chaddick Institute at Chicago's DePaul University:" The idea of changing from a machine-shop culture has got to come centre stage. Airlines are still like factories, where people punch in on a time clock and follow very detailed rules." He adds that there have been few sustained efforts to make airlines "a more intellectually engaging place to work".

To be fair to smokestack industries, most of those have already taken on the message of cultural change and moving beyond the work-to-rule mentality. Some airlines too have started to change - even the once doggedly unfashionable American Airlines allows casual dress for office staff. But to engage pilots in the business will take more than a change in dress sense.

Pilots are, almost by definition, absentee workers, distanced from the rest of workforce. The closest that many come to an office is the pilot briefing room. No wonder that, as a group, they have tended to develop a finely honed locker-room mentality.

Not only that, while pilots may have highly developed professional skills, few have any commercial experience. Their view of the airline therefore tends to be heavily skewed towards its operational rather than business needs.

There have, of course, been attempts to bring pilots in from the cold. Employee equity plans have been much in fashion, but recent history would suggest that they are not the answer. Both United and Northwest Airlines launched pioneering stock plans in the mid-1990s, but they were also hit by the opening strikes in the latest wave of unrest. Even supporters admit that the schemes have rarely been tried except in desperate circumstances when the alternative was bankruptcy. Neither do these engender the sense of belonging and participation in the business that is required.

What is needed is a more radical rethink of how pilots are engaged in the business. Opportunities for regular contact with other managers, or even external analysts, will help more than any number of in-house newsheets - often viewed as no more than management propaganda. One model could be to start viewing pilots as home-workers, connected to the office by IT as in other industries.

Business education too could help with a more rational understanding of how and why decisions are made. Pilots also might be included in making those decisions rather than left to work on conspiracy theories.

Above all, pilots and management must learn to trust each other. Airline alliances are a case in point. Unions have pressed ahead with their own defensive crossborder action groups. Meanwhile, executives dare not even talk out loud about alliance synergies in the cockpit for fear of union reaction. Facing such fears may hold its risks, but maintaining the status quo is almost certainly storing up trouble ahead.

Source: Airline Business