THE EUROPEAN airline-pilot market - much to the chagrin of the pilots - is still very much a buyer's market. There are some signs that it is freeing up, with some major airlines starting to recruit (or at least showing an interest). There is not, however, a widespread shortage of airline pilots in Europe, with almost as many pilots surplus to the requirements of the struggling carriers as there are vacancies amongst the thriving ones.

There is, however, a significant development taking place in the market - one, which will change its face forever. At long last, it seems that the European pilot market is shaking off the shackles of nationalism and becoming precisely that, a European market.

Despite a history of almost 40 years of European integration, the European market for pilots has until now, steadfastly remained a national one, with little movement of pilots across intra-European boundaries. European pilots have found jobs elsewhere in the world (especially in Africa and Asia and, famously, in Australia), but French, German or UK airline pilots have rarely been found based in each other's countries, no matter what European employment legislation might have to say.

As with so many other "free-trade" regimes, the European pilot market has remained un-free through informal or cultural restrictions. No matter that the international language of aviation be English, German airlines have continued to insist on German-speaking pilots, the French on French speakers, and so on.

Sabena had an idea that it could base some, or all, of its pilots outside Belgium, as a way of getting round Belgium's onerous interpretations of European employment legislation and existing restrictive union agreements. Political pressure put a stop to that idea in the short term; Sabena's new parent, Swissair, may be more positive towards the idea. A great many attitudes are changing, and a major bastion of employment nationalism may be about to fall.

Lufthansa is traditionally a hirer of German pilots only: now it is proposing to hire Spanish nationals - albeit only those who have been through Lufthansa's own training system as employees of Iberia.

Sabena, traditionally constrained by local social pressures to hire none but Belgian pilots, is hiring pilots in Portugal and France - albeit with the sweetener to locals that it is hiring them only on 12-month contracts.

British Airways has not yet started hiring from abroad, but even it, traditionally a self-sufficient trainer of pilots, is now contemplating hiring from outside its own ranks.

Nobody should get too excited at these developments - after all, they appear to be being triggered not so much by an outbreak of Euro-enthusiasm as by good old-fashioned pragmatism. Some airlines have shortages of pilots; others have surpluses. It is easier and quicker to hire a ready-trained pilot than it is to train one yourself. It is a short-term problem, with a short-term solution, which has brought this about and, in the long term, it is likely that in-house training schemes will push the balance some way back towards national, rather than international, recruitment.

Not all the way, however. Even this level of pragmatism would not have been possible even a couple of years ago, and now that it has been achieved, many pilots will be reluctant to let it go. European legislation is, albeit slowly, making it less and less possible for employers to discriminate on national grounds against individual European pilots. The long-overdue harmonisation of training and licensing standards within Europe is at last within sight - and even a transatlantic harmonisation is no longer a pipe-dream.

The movement of pilots at the moment is small, with only a few airlines actively encouraging it, but it can only accelerate as Europe follows the USA out of airline recession. As that happens, the demand for pilots must grow - and with a limited supply, there may even be a seller's market for a few years. The increasing mobility of pilots can only impose some much-needed stability on the market by damping out the worst excesses of supply and demand.

Source: Flight International