Commercial pressure is changing the function of the pilot

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This topic contains 32 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  Charles-P 12 Oct 2014
at 08:37

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  • Anonymous


    I paste below a letter in today’s FT which I think is very well written and highlights a lot of what is going on today in the industry. We’ve seen AF and LH pilots go on strike. A LH pilot who took Lufthansa to court over having to wear his cap – a sign of authority I think – and the lack of which makes him look like cabin crew! What do other posters think?


    Sir, As chief executive of and a commercial pilot, I have seen a gradual decline in the role and status of the pilot over the past 15 years. There are three main causes to the downward pressure on pilots’ remuneration: low cost airlines, flight deck automation and the large numbers of unemployed entry level pilots.

    While the recent Air France pilot strikes were on the surface, about pay and benefits, I think there is an underlying cause that is more about the symbolic role of the pilot. There is a lot of emotion and pride involved in earning your wings, so this inevitably creates strong feelings when the role has to change. The strike has been called off for now but it has had a sustained and fundamental impact for the wider airline industry. Passengers will unfortunately experience more disruption in the coming years as the unions fight this inevitable crash in pay and conditions for their members.

    Low-cost airlines will continue to gain market share with ever-greater fleet and route volumes, and by addressing the needs of the business traveller as well as leisure. The low cost airlines have also been able to tap into the entry point of the pilot recruitment cycle. New pilots looking for their first job have accepted the conditions offered as the only stepping stone into a pilot career.

    Technology has created much more automation in the flight deck. Unfortunately for my fellow pilots, we can expect a further future impact when airlines are permitted to fly with only one airborne pilot. After all, the military are training more ground-based drone operators than fighter pilots – though I think pilotless passenger planes are still a way off.

    The traditional figurehead role of the pilot in society may be changing, but is still about security and decision making when it really matters. However, the fact remains that commercial pressure in today’s aviation industry is changing the function of the pilot irrecoverably.

    So are Air France pilots fighting a losing battle? Yes, sadly I believe they are.

    Adam Twidell St Albans, Herts, UK


    I agree with Mr Twidell in the main. I think the explosion of air travel over the past decade or so has caused the reduction in prices of all things aviation, fares in real terms, salary in the sector, even the aircraft are cheaper now than a decade ago in real terms. It is like anything, supply and demand, the more demand, the more supply, the more supply the cheaper it gets. Whether that is the apples in your shopping trolley or the cost of a 737 pilot, it is simple economics.

    The big question is what the effect is in the short to medium. Airlines are rife with overpaid ( including some pilots) staff doing a job they think should not have changed since the 747 first flew.

    Many of you may remember the days of the flight engineer on nearly every flight and the doom and gloom put about by air crew that flying will be less safe without them. Strikes followed to keep them. It did not come to pass, indeed in aviation generally it gets safer and safer. BA, IB and , most of the American carriers have all suffered strikes as crew strike to protect the jobs and salaries they think they are worth. Most people think they are worth more than they get, and it is the unions interest to keep that thought going in the minds of its members. The problem is it is those people that will price themselves out of a job before the union barons do. Perhaps someone could tell me why it is, a BA 747 skipper is worth more than a Flybe Q400 skipper? The job is the same, except the BA chap flies higher faster longer, but other than that what is the difference. The Ba chap gets almost three times the pay as the Flybe chap, the Flybe skipper having to work longer and harder for it. Whether I am on a 777 or an old Focker, if the skipper is having a bad day I am in the s***. The sooner some aircrew realise the world has changed since 1972 the better.


    Yes, A 747 skipper deserves more pay than a Q400 skipper, as a Premiership footballer earns more than a 1st Div player, just as a CEO of a Multi National earns more than a Director of an SME…

    Yes the job of a Pilot has changed and through technology will continue to change. As Mr Michael points out, most flight decks went from 4 pilots, to 3, to 2, that change alone brings in far more responsibility.

    Any pilot who feels their status or authority is not at a suitable level to command an aircraft, should exit the job, pdq.


    The French media had a similar theme in an article last week.

    L’Alsace-Le Pays (Mulhouse) report…

    ..More than most, the French are used to strikes, but last week’s walkout by Air France was a puzzle. The action, one of the longest such stoppages on record, cut the number of flights by more than half, left thousands of passengers fuming across western Europe and cost up to €15m per day.

    Yet the pilots are among the most coddled of workers. They start on €75,000 a year and eventually rake in as much as €250,000 along with generous perks and pensions, while flying 25% less than their counterparts at Lufthansa and BA.

    So what ails them so? They’re angry at plans by Air France to double the size of its budget airline Transavia and base many pilots abroad . But the company insists no jobs are at stake. On the contrary, the expansion plan gives pilots more employment opportunities provided they’re willing to fly longer hours.

    The pilots can’t grasp that in the new globalised economy, trying to protect their privileged status is crazy : low cost rivals like easyJet and Ryanair have changed the game. If Air France doesn’t adapt it will go down taking the pilots with it. Trying to maintain benefits is one thing, blindness to economic realities quite another.….end

    Some legacy pilots, especially their union reps, are clearly luddites. The game has indeed changed forever and as long as they try to preserve privilege status, anachronistic pay and conditions, the more they will be putting their own and their company’s future at risk.


    Not sure I can agree MartynSinclair. I can sort of see your analogy with the footballers, more people watch a premiership game thus more money than in the first division, and arguably the premiership player has more skill than the div 1 player. ( I think most footballers are paid far too much, but that’s not for this forum). The CEO I do not agree with, CEO,s are paid based on track record and the multi national CEO will need a more strategic mind than the SME MD thus the pay differential.

    Whether flying a Q400 or a 777 the skill I require from the pilot is not dissimilar, certainly not triple the salary dissimilar. I expect the skipper to be able to take off, cruise and land safely and to have a damn good understanding of what they need to do when things go wrong.

    But ok, let’s take like for like…a 737 captain say with Ryanair and BA. The BA captain has almost 20% more time off and a base salary 50% higher than his Ryanair counterpart. The BA skipper will get more on top for nights away, the Ryanair chap will be home every night.
    It is the same aircraft with the same company, pax and regulator expectations. The expectations in salary for the BA skipper is higher because he is working for a legacy carrier rather than a LoCo. They are equally skilled and equally as safe. It is that difference that be the problem facing Air France/Lufthansa in the future. They cannot cut their costs not because they don’t want to, but the unions won’t let them. And that is a recipe for higher costs in the future and an unsustainable business model.


    Then surely the same argument stands for the Capt of the Queen Mary 2 and a X channel ferry..

    You would not give a long haul heavy Command to a youngster… the systems and complexity of the 747 go far beyond a Q400 and as such the pilots should be paid a lot more.

    Different companies have different pay scales for the same job. My nephew has just started work for a social media company doing Events Management. He was poached from a “feeder events management company”. The social media company doubled his salary and flies him every where in business of First (at 23 years of age).

    Different companies, different standards… different pay scales… ask any loco pilot what they would like to aspire to……… most would say the left hand seat of a legacy……. nothing wrong with an employment scale….


    I agree Martin, it is and your right. But it does mean the legacy carriers will struggle to survive on the sort of salary they pay, that is the point I am making. Most pilots will want to work where the pay is highest, but they may well have in the end to accept less because the market for pilots has changed, if they don’t, they will surely bankrupt the very hand that is feeding it.


    Actually speaking to Pilot friends they mainly agree that working on highland and island routes, on smaller aircraft, utilizes greater aviation skills and is more problematic.

    The salary is more based up the responsibility … and archaic legacy agreements

    Given basic supply/demand, technology and real world economics, existing legacy carrier pilots will struggle to maintain their current package. Moreover, attempting to preserve it for future pilots is sheer folly and will have the converse impact.


    One of the big problems today is weer all want cheap. No longer do the majority fly the flag for patriotic reasons but purely based on price. Whoever is cheaper gets the bum on the seat! Airlines, especially the legacy carriers through old agreements with unions and so on are particularly hampered as one of the few areas they can cut costs is on staff.

    They’ve put more seats in, cut back on catering, bought more economical and more fuel efficient planes, are having to deal with more regulations, fight more court cases and pay out more in compensation. Where else can they save? Staff costs and that is the next fight. For sure the unions will react but in the end, the airlines will win and salaries well be reduced.


    I agree LP that cost is a big factor, however as there does not appear to have been an adverse impact on safety, the higher cost (of legacy pilots) will be hard to justify. Meanwhile the legacy short haul product has come down market so are of comparable quality.

    Those pilots luxuriating in a bygone sense of entitlement need to move on. The article/comment below provides a salutary lesson for those who don’t….

    Many roles/jobs are facing a fundamental game change, Tube/Overground becoming increasingly driverless, vessels (military and civilian) requiring half the crew, docks becoming 90% automated, as already has happened within publishing/printing/news print etc.

    Travis Kalanick recently gave an impactful presentation, his initiative has led to a game change which will impact taxis across large cities the world over. It not only significantly lowers costs to passengers but has many other beneficial aspects for passengers, the environment and city congestion. I predict two thirds of business travellers on this forum will be utilizing Uber within 1-2 years.

    Whereas protectionist France appears to wish to maintain the status quo, especially wrt privilege and entitlement, the British culture/economy appears far more accepting of the changes that will ensue from the digital age and benefit accordingly. Those not wishing to adapt will surely be left behind.


    Methinks Mr. Twidell’s FT comment was also a creative marketing strategy by stimulating attention/debate.

    Or is it merely coincidence that his company has just been positively profiled here…

    Whichever, fair play to him although not a game changer, PrivateFly will imo thrive (unless a major chartering company takes a fancy) and methinks an aviation version of Uber or UberPooling/ revived Skytrain is not beyond the realms of possibility within 3-5 years.


    Thanks, everyone and especially LP for starting this fascinating thread. Thus far, it is one of the most thoughtful discussions we have had in a long while.

    My own view is that, while legacy pilots such as those at AF may hold the dam with their fingers just a little longer, the force of change (not necessarily all for the good) will swamp them in time.

    As for the 747 – Dash 8 debate, why not extend it to a comparsion between responsibilities for driving a Routemaster versus an A380…….. How do pay levels compare there?


    Speaking as somebody who works in the defence and aviation industry I can make some predictions that are now widely accepted.

    1) One pilot operation is coming, it’s much closer than people think with companies like Embraer and Rockwell Collins testing systems right now.

    2) The days of high wages for pilots are at an end. China and India for example will likely produce around 30% of the global pilot stock in the next ten years, they can and will be paid much less.

    3) The industry is moving toward a three tier system of product.

    a) At one end is the low cost carriers we are familiar with who are constantly pushing the envelope with regard to just how far they can drive the passenger with regard to price verses comfort, believe me we are not at the limit yet. The CEO of one major low cost carrier said he had seen what people were prepared to put up with on a four hour coach trip and he thought that was a model for a future low cost Asian airline.

    b) The Business only flight – people prepared to pay with usually somebody else money to have comfort, good food and convenience.

    c) Low cost private jet, already the First Class market is being lost to these as companies and individuals realise how much costs have fallen.

    On a final note the Air France strike was probably the very worst thing they could have done as any public sympathy they once had in France was more or less all eroded by the action.


    With all respects:

    1) No it isn’t anywhere close. You think it’s ok to fly for 12 hours through the night on your own? Or if that Pilot becomes incapacitated they just all crash and die yeah? So you’re alluding to pilotless aircraft….

    Of course technology makes it possible to fly remotely, a 5 year old can buy a toy remote controlled plane. However this cannot be brought to the market in our lifetimes due to many logistical, commercial and operational reasons. Just think about some of them will you. I shouldn’t have to spell it out.

    2) You do realise that it is having the opposite effect? They are driving salary increases across the world for pilots. In your scenario, in ten years time you could imagine 30% of air traffic also will be from China and India – so guess where that ‘global stock’ of pilots will be based?

    If you are a suggesting that for example, British Airways will be employing Chinese pilots on a different salary scale in order to reduce costs you are deluded.

    3) This is a different discussion entirely. No idea why you have included it.

    Perhaps I could bring your attention to the bigger picture.

    When was the last time you discussed ATC salaries, engineers, cabin crew, fire services etc? They are also benefiting from advances in technology and reliability.

    A company has developed a drone that inspects aircraft for damage, replacing the need for an engineer to do it! Does that mean the technology is practical or just fanciful? Ask an Engineer what he thinks about it. Where are the articles calling for Engineers to be replaced and salaries reduced?

    I’d suggest that the constant whine targeted exclusively towards Pilot salaries is largely jealousy. How many surveys have I read about workforce salaries that puts Pilots incorrectly at the top?

    The public seem to think that autopilot is a new feature and solely use this as an excuse to belittle the profession. You would not believe how many times I hear that from visitors to the flightdeck. My father flew 747’s for BA during the golden age of aviation….with an autopilot, and autoland capability. With lateral and vertical navigation. Radar vectored ils, to radar vectored ils. Just as today.

    The terms and conditions have already been decimated. I fly twice as much for half the salary and a third of the pension. Young pilots now fund their own training at vast personal expense which already questions the viability of the career. Yet still this is not apparently enough to satisfy the vultures.

    Not until the next Daily Mail survey comes out with Pilots somewhere near the bottom will the public let up. As I said, pure jealousy.

    Do you understand that a young man today choosing to be a tube driver will make more money than a Pilot? Where is the public ranting about tube driver salaries?? It’s only because it is a job people still aspire to that causes this.

    And it’s all relative: you try chatting a girl up in the US. Just watch the blood drain out her face when she discovers you fly commercial. The airlines have succeeded in the US to beat down the profession to such a level through the media. Just as you lot are attempting to do here. In the rest of the world it is still a highly respected profession.

    So although there is so much more to say, I’ll just tell you what I tell every dickhead that comes into my office to tell me how easy my job is….

    When everything is going well, the weathers nice, decent time of day, it is an easy enjoyable job. Yes absolutely.

    But when things go wrong, when the rollercoaster comes off the tracks, it quickly becomes a difficult stressful job requiring a mix of tech and non-tech skills that can only be acquired through recurrent training and experience.

    Thankfully it goes relatively well the vast majority of the time. That doesn’t make it easier when it goes wrong!!

    Now ask yourself, when was the last time you walked into a fire station, walked up to a bunch of fireman who are watching daytime TV to tell them how easy their job is and that they should be paid less as they just sit around all day doing nothing? It’s exactly the same thing.

    When you call out the fire services in your time of need, would you begrudge them their salary? When your aircraft breaks, do you begrudge your pilots their salaries?

    The way the industry has moved is experienced Captain flying with cheap cadet. The value of a First Officer has been reduced. His salary has been chopped. As yes I agree that risk is worth it. With the difference in salaries it is already as cost efficient as the single pilot operation you hope for.

    It is a risk taken on your behalf. When the Captain makes a welcome aboard PA would you be happy if he told you he was a cheap Chinese cadet brought in to reduce costs? Were Malaysian Airlines passengers happy that the airline risked flying over a war zone to save costs when others were routing around it? It’s all risk management, and it’s out of your control. You don’t even know the risks that your airline has chosen to take on your behalf. You should be crossing your fingers every time you fly….but as long as we can reduce costs and increase profits it’s all worth it yeah?

    Unfortunately it’s sad to see the standard of some of the First Officers even in the UK. But that’s what happens when you pay so little.

    And we are seeing the effects of that starting to come though. What happens when they all get their commands? Inexperienced pilots on the flightdeck – AF447 anyone? You want cheap foreign pilots like Asiana? Cool. Or Turkish Airlines and many other examples… How did they work out?

    Catastrophic consequences. So you better hope that your luck holds out in your flying, or are you ironically going to be praying for your Pilots to be well trained, experienced, rested and happy when you need them?

    Well you gotta pay for that chaps!

    Now realise how much your opinion is controlled by the media. Who is behind these stories? Who benefits? The airlines so they can continue to drive costs down and pass on the savings to their shareholders.

    Everyone loves to knock people off their perch, it makes them feel better about themselves huh.

    Enjoy your day.

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