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Opinion by Paul Reuter, ECA Industrial Affairs Director

Note to the reader: What follows is my personal opinion based on a 25-year plus career in aviation. The fact that the article drips sarcasm in places is not intended to offend (should you feel so) but to incite a reflection and contrast with the sugar-coated “business speak” that is used to tip around the elephant in the room so often. Enjoy...

An industry in disarray?

If you followed the news these last couple of weeks, you will have noticed that, while the post-covid recovery in the travel industry is here, the industry itself seems to be in serious disarray.

Reports of passengers stranded in major European airports, endless waiting lines, a huge number of flights cancelled on a daily basis due to staff and crew shortages are the very visible symptoms of the underlying sickness of the airline industry.

To those within the industry, this comes as no surprise. For years, we have seen the erosion of working conditions and the downwards spiral of social standards, the lowering of the bar for service in what once prided itself to be an industry of excellence that brought communities together and attracted droves of young people into its fold.

When the pandemic struck, most airlines and airports were quick to furlough or even dismiss their employees, often leaving them without pay or support. Today, many of these people have discovered that there is a life beyond aviation and many do not miss the tediously long duties, early mornings and late nights and assorted 12-hour shifts... And they remember the nonchalance and ease with which the industry got rid of them overnight.

I guess that when you leave the industry in the hands of accountants who masquerade as economists and reduce everything (except their own mistakes) to a cost, this is what you get.

Oh, the ridicule one must feel when one has to eliminate a seat row in order to be able to operate your planes with less cabin crew…

For the pilot profession, often perceived as the most ‘glamourous’ part of the industry, the dream died years ago, when airlines started to get creative with employment models, pushing young entrants to the pilot profession into opaque and dubious contracts, such as “pay-to-fly”, precarious atypical agency contracts, or thinly disguised “self-employment” relationships. 

At that time, the pilot community, majorly employed in the “flag carriers”, initially missed the opportunity to welcome these pilots into the fold and help them secure decent employment. Likewise, the EU and national governments repeatedly turned the other way and pretended not to notice, probably all in the pursuit of  of “cheap connectivity”. 

That was enough of a signal for some industry players who wanted to shamelessly push and lower the bar wherever they could.

As a recent example, if “Europe’s favourite airline” (their words, not mine) and one of the biggest European operators gets sentenced for fraud because they tried to circumnavigate social laws in an EU country and there is barely a shrug – instead of an outrage – what does it say about the state of this industry?

Moreover, if there is proof that certain operators actively circumnavigate labour laws and social regulations while national authorities as well as EU Institutions pretend that all is well, what does it say about the state of the EU and the value of those lofty principles that we love to preach to the world?

If we want the airline industry not only to survive, but to thrive in the post-pandemic world, the recovery needs to be socially sustainable. Aviation is a serious business and we need to start attracting talent again and offer people that enter this industry real perspectives and motivation.

This being said, we should not see the fact that many young people are still ready to spend upwards of 120.000 euros for a pilot licence as proof of the continued attractiveness of the pilot profession or the airline industry. It is merely the naive idealised dream of the job that we all had, except that for my generation, the gap between the reality and the dream was less prominent.

With this in mind:

  • Our industry needs to renew its commitment to providing excellence of service and acknowledge that professionalism, quality and safety have a price – and rarely tolerate shortcuts.
  • Authorities, governments and the EU institutions need to own up to their responsibilities and consequently strengthen and enforce existing labour and social laws. Otherwise those players that skilfully abuse the regulatory loopholes will continue to do so and thereby further undermine competition within Europe’s single aviation market
  • The EU Commission needs to become much more proactive and swiftly make its (long-delayed)  legislative proposal to revise the EU Air Services Regulation (EU1008/2008). It must do so with the explicit aim of closing a number of loopholes on homebase, oversight and bogus self-employment.
  • EASA needs to focus on its role as a safety regulator and among other, use the mandate given by Article 89 of its Basic Regulation to ensure that pilots can use their authority and take independent safety decisions – without fear of reprisal.

The aviation community, crews, engineers, security and other staff, are, despite all these challenges, a committed and motivated bunch. It would be time that the industry and the EU gets worthy of their commitment…

Oh, and maybe we also need to get rid of some of these accountants after all…