Pilots describe toxic culture and airline mistakes
The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the start of the summer has not abated much, and the media and social media users continue to report hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of misplaced suitcases.
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Canceled flights. Long queues. Staff walkouts. Baggage missing.
Sound familiar? The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the summer has not abated much, and the media and social media users continue to report hordes of impatient travelers and mountains of lost suitcases.
This week alone, German airline Lufthansa canceled almost all of its flights to Frankfurt and Munich, stranding some 130,000 travelers due to a one-day strike by its ground staff who were on strike for better pay .
London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam Airport Schiphol – two of Europe’s biggest travel hubs – have cut passenger capacity and demanded airlines cut flights to and from their airports, which angered travelers and airline managers.
Carriers in the United States have also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to staff shortages and weather issues.
Airlines loudly blame airports and governments. On Monday, European low-cost airline Ryanair’s chief financial officer, Neil Sorahan, complained that airports “have a job to do”.
Suitcases not collected at Heathrow Airport. The UK’s biggest airport has asked airlines to stop selling summer tickets.
Paul Ellis | AFP | Getty Images
But many of those working in the industry say airlines are also partly to blame for staff shortages and the situation is becoming serious enough to threaten safety.
CNBC spoke to several pilots flying for major airlines, all of whom described fatigue from long hours and what they said was opportunism and a desire to cut costs as part of a toxic “race to the bottom” culture that pervades the industry and makes the mess worse. situation that travelers face today.
All airline staff spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
“From a passenger perspective, it’s an absolute nightmare,” a pilot for low-cost European airline easyJet told CNBC.
“Before the summer it was absolute carnage because the airlines didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t have a proper plan in place. All they knew they wanted to do was was trying to fly as much as humanly possible – almost as if the pandemic had never happened,” the pilot said.
“But they forgot that they had cut all their resources.”
The resulting imbalance has “made our lives an absolute mess, both for cabin crew and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining how a shortage of ground staff since the pandemic layoffs – those who s busy with baggage, check-in, security and more – has created a domino effect that disrupts flight schedules.
In a statement, easyJet said the health and well-being of employees is “our top priority”, stressing that “we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and employ our employees on local contracts on terms competitively and in accordance with local law”.
The industry is now hampered by a combination of factors: not having enough resources to retrain, former employees unwilling to return, and poor wages that have largely remained suppressed since the budget cuts of the era. of the pandemic, despite a significant improvement in airline revenues.
“They told us pilots that we have pay cuts until at least 2030, except all managers are back with full pay plus pay raises for inflation,” said one. British Airways pilot.
“Various governments with their restrictions and no support for the aviation sector” as well as airport companies are largely responsible for the current chaos, the pilot said, adding that “some airlines took advantage of the situation to cut wages, sign new contracts and lay off workers, and now that things are back to normal, they can’t cope anymore”.
While many airports and airlines are now recruiting and offering better salaries, the required training programs and security clearance processors are also drastically reduced and outdated, further hampering the industry.
“They are shocked, which is unbelievable”
British Airways ground staff were set to go on strike in August over the fact that their full salaries had still not been reinstated – something particularly scathing at a time when the CEO of BA’s parent company, IAG , received a gross subsistence allowance of £250,000 ($303,000). for the year.
But this week the airline and the workers’ union agreed to a pay rise to call off the planned strike, although some employees say it’s still not a full return to their pre-pandemic pay.
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In a statement, British Airways said: “The past two years have been devastating for the entire aviation industry. We have taken steps to restructure our business in order to survive and save jobs.”
The company also said “the vast majority of layoffs during this period were voluntary.”
“We are fully focused on building the resilience of our operations to give customers the certainty they deserve,” the airline said.
IAG CEO Luis Gallego, whose company owns BA, lost his £900,000 bonus in 2021 and took voluntary pay cuts in 2020 and 2021, and did not receive his 2020 bonus .
A pilot flying for Dubai’s flagship airline, Emirates, said a short-term mindset that took employees for granted had for years laid the foundation for the current situation.
The airlines “were happy to try to drive down the wages of many people in the industry for years, assuming nobody had anywhere to go,” the pilot said. “And now that people are exercising their right to go somewhere else, they’re shocked, which is unbelievable. I’m shocked that they’re shocked.”
A security risk?
All of this stress for airline staff is on top of the often overlooked issue of pilot fatigue, all pilots interviewed by CNBC said.
The maximum legal limit for a pilot’s flight time is 900 hours per year. But for many airlines “it wasn’t seen as the absolute maximum, it was the goal of trying to make everyone’s workload as efficient as possible,” the easyJet pilot said.
“That’s the big worry with us is that we have quite a toxic culture, an inordinate amount of work,” echoed the Emirates driver. “All of this contributes to potentially reducing the margin of safety. And that’s a big concern.”
All of this has been combined with low wages and less attractive contracts, say the pilots, many of whom were rewritten when the pandemic upended air travel.
“A bit of a toxic soup of it all, airports and airlines share the same level of responsibility. It’s been a race to the bottom for years,” the Emirates pilot said. “They’re only going to try to pay as little as they can get away with paying.”
Emirates Airline did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.
“Crony capitalists. Rat race to bottom. No respect for skilled labor now,” the BA pilot said of the industry leadership. “They just want the cheapest labor to produce their own big bonuses and satisfy shareholders.”
The International Air Transport Association said in response to such criticism that “the airline industry is increasing its resources as quickly as possible to safely and efficiently meet the needs of travellers”. He acknowledged that “there is no doubt that times are tough for industrial workers, especially when they are in short supply”.
The trade group issued recommendations “to attract and retain talent in the ground handling industry”, and said in a statement that “obtaining additional resources where gaps exist is among the top priorities of industry leadership teams around the world”.
“And in the meantime,” he added, “the patience of travellers.”