Recent industrial action at two major airlines has shown that relations between pilots and airlines need to move on

The ongoing work-to-rule by pilots at Cathay Pacific Airways and the recent strikes at Lufthansa and Comair have again thrown into focus the havoc that airline pilots are able to wreak by resorting to industrial action in support of pay claims.

The fact that two of the most recent examples of labour unrest have hit arguably two of the world's best managed major carriers hardly inspires confidence that the industry is making any progress at all towards improving relations with the pilot fraternity.

It seems strike action has become almost a prerequisite to resolving pay disputes in many cases. Management often finds it necessary to demonstrate that it will not cave in to threats by pilots over strike action, while pilots feel required to show they are prepared to carry out their threats if not appeased. Once the aircraft stop flying, an agreement tends to be hammered out quickly, but not before huge losses have been incurred and customers have been alienated. In many instances these passengers never return.

The sad truth is that until the airlines and pilot unions find a way to strip out the archaic structures that artificially constrain the career progression of pilots and prevent them from realising their true "market value", it is nothing less than inevitable that industrial action of the most damaging kind will continue.

There are few professionals who embark on their careers today with the expectation they will spend their entire working life with a single employer. But that remains the case with young pilots joining the major airlines. Rigid union-backed rules governing seniority are a major disincentive for experienced pilots to seek alternative flying jobs, because they would have to start all over again at the bottom of the ladder.

The result is that pilot pay, on the whole, is not governed by the usual free market laws of supply and demand. Instead, the almost unique inflexibility of the labour market means that from an airline's point of view a pilot is worth whatever they have to be paid to not go on strike. This is, of course, assuming that he or she is capable of operating an aircraft in accordance with the required standards of safety and efficiency.

The other requirement is to keep entry-level pay high enough to attract cadet pilots of a sufficient calibre.

The distortion that this creates is well illustrated by the disputes at Cathay and Lufthansa. The Hong Kong Air Crew Officers Association is demanding better pay for its members despite the fact that they are already paid substantially more than Lufthansa's pilots settled for after their strike.

The problem is therefore how to reach a consensus over the value of the work performed by a pilot, and whether this should be governed by the level of responsibility they shoulder or by the laws of supply and demand. The answer, as is so often the case, lies somewhere between the two.

There are those who argue that automation and the increased reliability of aircraft systems have made the job of flying "easier". It is a fact, for example, that statistically a young co-pilot joining the line with a major carrier today will probably never have to deal with a real-life engine failure.

However this argument is flawed because it fails to recognise that in an era where a catastrophic crash can cost $1 billion, any pilot can face a serious emergency, however rare, and must be sufficiently trained and experienced to deal with it. Fundamentally pilots are paid to not make mistakes and ensure the safety of the travelling public, and their remuneration should reflect this.

That said, why shouldn't airline pilots be able to take their skills and experience elsewhere in the market place where they can command higher financial rewards, just as professionals in most other industry sectors are able to do without sacrificing seniority? Pilots would have the option of voting with their feet rather than for strike action, and airlines would be forced to pay market rates to retain those with valuable experience, especially at times when experienced aircrew are in short supply.

Airlines would enjoy the benefits of being able to better match their pilot pools to their optimum fleet size, and would have the option of temporarily bumping up pay rates during times of rapid expansion.

The industry faces a choice between a future of labour unrest and strikes, or attempting to reach a consensus on dragging the pilot labour market into the modern age.

Source: Flight International