The way in which international airlines are conducting business in a globalised marketplace is, in some cases, taking them down roads nobody could have foreseen in the days when markets were more local and businesses straitjacketed by bilateral treaties.
If being multinational allows a company to hunt around for low-tax ways of doing business – and for low-cost employment – as sure as water runs downhill, businesses will take those routes. The EU is a hybrid marketplace containing sovereign states with national laws, taxes and economies. However, the whole is a domestic unit for business purposes, enabling businesses to shop around the member states for friendly taxes, soft regulatory oversight and low wages. Some of this was foreseen – even desired – by the founders, including the economic and societal consequences.
But one of the effects of multinationalism is that it generates corporate personas stripped of any national ethos. They feel free – indeed obliged – to act in the amoral way people often behave in the anonymous environment of the Internet. This has left many governments nonplussed – they want to host successful businesses, but don’t like some of the social consequences.
Where does aviation come into this? Employment practice, particularly among low-cost carriers in Europe, is inexorably going down the road of requiring pilots to be self-employed, but with contracts that rob them of the freedom that self-employment normally confers. So what? They are big boys and girls, and if they don’t like it they shouldn’t join. Besides, safety statistics do not, at present, support the argument that this practice puts pressure on these safety-critical employees, affecting the quality of their work.
Whatever misgivings member states may have, they are at a loss about what to do. Meanwhile, Norway – not an EU member but in the European Economic Area – has broken ranks and written to the European Commission. Experience with the aggressively modernist Norwegian Air Shuttle has brought the social issues into sharp focus, and Oslo is challenging the EU to declare its hand on the grounds that these unintended consequences should either be declared completely acceptable, or they should be regulated.
Pilot unions have long been warning of a “race to the bottom” on airline employment practices, and although the Germanwings disaster does not appear to have been precipitated by issues like these, it is a chilling reminder of the power in the hands of a discontented pilot.