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Airline pilot self-employment on the rise in Europe

About 14% of pilots flying for European airlines are self-employed or work for temporary work agencies (TWA) – and the proportion is growing, according to a European Commission-funded study by the University of Ghent. The first conference held to examine this social phenomenon is being held in Paris on 12-13 February.

The study, carried out between September and November 2014, involved a questionnaire that received a total of 6,633 responses – around 10% of all the professional pilots in Europe. The largest group of respondents were between 30 and 40 years old and had more than ten years flying experience.

Some 5.4% of those in what Ghent terms “atypical employment” had a contract with a TWA, and 72% of those had a fixed-term contract with the agency. "Many report being paid per hour without a minimum number of flights guaranteed," the study says.

Among the pilots in "atypical employment", 70% work for low-cost carriers, and the majority of those were at the younger end of the age range. The study found that respondents working in business aviation also "tend to be self-employed more often than their colleagues working for network or regional airlines".

The university remarks that the fact a large proportion of self-employed pilots work only for one company "could be considered as an indicator of bogus self employment". This means that the contracts these pilots have require them to work exclusively for a single carrier, so they have none of the flexibility normally implied by true self-employment.

The study observes: "The majority of flight crew directly employed in a network airline stem from another era: they have 20-25 years of experience and have witnessed the deregulation of the aviation market. In other words, they were recruited in a different time: a time where an open-ended labour agreement concluded directly with the airline was the typical employment relationship."

One of the main issues with the use of these forms of subcontracting, the study notes, is the legal identification of the operator: "Is the end user the operator? Or is an intermediary subcontractor the operator? Or can the self-employed pilot be defined as an operator?" This question, the study says, is linked to the definition of the pilot's home base, which has a bearing on the social legislation applicable.

Ghent found that many aircrew have jobs that do not comply with the home base principle. Operators are supposed to assign each crew member to a single airport, where duties start and end. This, says the study, determines which laws are relevant to the contracts, where crews pay social security, and which rules for minimum rest and working time apply to them.

Some 85% of pilots pay social security in their home base country, and 80% also pay their income tax there. The study observes, however, that "the concept is fragile" because 9% of pilots say they do not fly out of their real home base. "This raises the question of fake bases… [and] the often mala fide use of successive bases and the lack of consistent definition of 'operator' represent practical challenges for the enforcement of this principle," it says.

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