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A disease is stalking airlines, and it isn’t COVID-19…

A bit like the SARS2-CoV-2 virus it goes under many names, none of them especially catchy. It is prevalent throughout airlines, and seems highly transmissible between them, hopping from one to another, especially when they are under strain.

It is exacerbated by a number of ‘co-morbidities’: corporate greed; ruthless management; weak or compromised regulatory oversight. And right now, under cover of the COVID crisis, it risks spreading like wildfire.

Its names are many, including “Atypical Employment”, “Zero hours contracting”, “Bogus self-employment”, “Gig economy work”, “Arm’s-length employment” and “temporary broker agency contracting”. The disease is fatal to jobs and rights in an aviation industry that is being hammered by the COVID crisis.

In reality most of these schemes are just facades, pasted on top of what by any measure is just a normal job. In some airlines you may have a Captain and First Officer flying a single aeroplane, whose job characteristics are identical, and yet one of them (let’s say the Captain) is directly employed, and the other (our First Officer) is claimed to be ‘self-employed’ or an agency contractor. 

They both fly only for the one airline. They wear its uniform. They receive their work instructions from it, and have the same roster pattern. They are trained by it, following identical operating procedures and bound by the same regulations and reporting obligations. They are, in practice and fact, both directly employed. But the First Officer is given a label, and some complicated paperwork, administration and accounting (sometimes at the borders of legality) as an overlay to help camouflage this fact, and allow the airline to call him or her a ‘contractor’.

To put it simply: it’s bullshit. And dangerous bullshit, at that.

What's atypical employment in aviation? To put it simply: it’s bullshit. And dangerous bullshit, at that.  

Why is it dangerous? Well, this is where the disease takes its toll. In good times, when the airline needs the pilots’ (or cabin crews’) services, these precariously employed crew are under a much higher obligation to do as they are told, lest they find themselves no longer required without reason or rights. And in bad times jobs are just scrapped, and staff kicked out on the street.

Atypical employment means the airline takes the benefits of crewmembers’ work without accountability, while the crewmember shoulders all of the risk, and many more of the costs.

If sick and unfit to fly, they face sanction or ‘chop’ of their pay (zero hours contract: no flight = no pay), and certainly no chance of sick pay. Same with pregnant female pilots. If taking a professional judgement that an aeroplane needs maintenance before operating, or that weather at their destination is marginal, they will personally bear the cost in lost wages if the flight does not go, and likely have the safety decision count against them for its commercial consequences. They do their best to make the right decision nonetheless, but over time and across many atypically employed pilots, what do you think the only effect can be?

In bad times, like now, they are simply dropped. The nature of atypical employment is that the pilot has an increased level of obligation to their de facto employer, but the airline keeps them at arm’s length, avoiding the responsibilities and accountability that go with employing somebody (including in many cases some of the social taxes that should go to supporting workers). Labour rights applying to direct employees are absent, and the costs and risks of not working are borne entirely by the pilots. 

The ‘gig economy’ is a cool sounding name for a disease that is spreading outwards from several infection sites in the wider economy

In many cases an intermediary company or agency is labelled the technical ‘employer’, so that they can be liquidated by the airline, or have service provision cancelled without consequence for the airline, but a great deal of consequence for the crew.

Why does this matter, why should you care?

Because this disease is spreading. 

Whilst the whole of Europe pulls together, enduring lockdowns and restrictions, supporting those who are most vulnerable, airlines are taking advantage. Having used the services of atypically employed staff for years without contributing to social safety nets in the way intended for people who they in reality employ, EU taxpayers will now have to look after them all the same. The airlines have taken a free ride, at all of our expense.

On top of this, those who are lucky enough to be kept on are threatened with the sack if they do not accept lower pay and conditions, despite many of these airlines having enough cash to survive, or taking taxpayer money to bolster their coffers. Knowing their staff have nowhere else to go under the COVID crisis, their employer seeks to exploit them further, damaging the communities in which they live.

This is not unique to aviation, the ‘gig economy’ is a cool sounding name for a disease that is spreading outwards from several infection sites in the wider economy. But if every employer behaved like this, if this pretence of no direct employment relationship spreads like the disease it is, just where do we think economic recovery from the COVID crisis will come from? We are having to be responsible citizens to help society move through this crisis, but some corporations think they are exempt, and can take advantage of that. 

We are having to be responsible citizens to help society move through this crisis, but some corporations think they are exempt, and can take advantage of that. 

Unlike SARS-CoV-2, the dreaded coronavirus, this disease is not desperately in need of a vaccine or treatment. It doesn’t even need complex government actions in response. There is a ready-made treatment, and it a simple policy that could be adopted with no more than the decision of national governments and the EU. 

Call the façade of atypical employment the lie it self-evidently is, and ban it. There is no place it can exist in reality in commercial air transport, as evidenced by multiple studies, so it needs only a default assumption that all pilots and cabin crew are directly employed by the airlines they fly for to fix it. Airlines could always prove otherwise, if it were genuine – but they won’t be able to, because it’s fake.

It doesn’t seem much to ask for as one of the conditions for billions of Euros in direct and indirect support from European institutions, citizens, taxpayers and governments to help airlines through the COVID crisis. This financial support is supposed to be for the good of the people, who rely on a functional economy – why on earth would we fund such a damaging practice?

There is a disease stalking the airline industry, and it isn’t COVID… 

But it can be stopped with a decision, just like that.


by Capt. Jon Horne, ECA President