A workers union is quite often a pain for companies, since their main mission is to look after their members pay checks, retirement benefits, vacations, insurances and the like. Still, in most advanced societies – read democracies – most employees are organized in labour unions, and regardless of their efforts to be well paid relations are normally pretty good, since responsible unions care quite a lot about the welfare of their company as well. Occasionally a few union representatives are also board members.
A pilots union is all of the above and more. To begin with, their pilots are much more interested in the commercial success of their particular airline, since seniority systems make it expensive to change to another airline. Some call it loyalty. Pilots also care for more than monetary issues – like duty times, training, general flight safety including aircraft overhaul and fuel reserves.
In most airlines CEOs have to rely on their pilots unions to uphold their number one priority – safety – since they rarely are experts in that particular field. The company cost for pilots is measured in how much they are paid and how many duty hours they put in. Since the low cost airlines started eroding economy for the industry in general and authorities then have allowed unreasonable duty times in a misguided effort to help, pilot negotiations have by necessity been including duty time discussions.
Sometimes unions have to trade some pay benefits for more reasonable duty times – like 12 hours instead of 16 for a two-pilot crew – and thus actually buying flight safety for their own money. Money well spent, one might say. For them selves, the company and most important the airline’s passengers.
A tycoon-wannabe Frank Lorenzo sent Eastern Airlines down the drain by not realizing the value of a responsible pilots union, and the ensuing strikes bankrupted the once prestigious airline. Ryanairs Mike O’Leary has kept firing pilots who have whispered ”union” for too long, and now has a strike on his hand. Many other companies keep their pilots non-unionized, believing that they save money that way. Norwegian has a lot of pilots outside the security of a union. And here we come to the core of the problem. Security.
Security means integrity. There are few factors contributing more to flight safety than a captains integrity. A co-pilots as well for that matter. If you have to make a decision – you constantly have to – regarding the safety of the operation of the aircraft and at the same time worry about your employment status, you are not as safe as the passengers have the right to demand. Will I be fired if I take extra fuel due to bad weather, if I ground the aircraft because of too many technical problems, if I cancel the flight because I am so tired I can hardly stand etc. The pilots briefing papers in one non-union airline included a note ”If you take more than flight plan fuel, contact the chief pilot”. Everyone knew what that ment.
If you fly for Ryanair or a number of other low-cost airlines, you get paid by the hour. A bad cold will cost you if you don’t drag yourself to work. If a non-union airline should have an accident it is very likely the reason could be trased to the very fact that the pilots are not unionized. No 1: They have a flow of inexperienced pilots since most of them leave for a better airline – one with a pilots union – as soon as they have acquired more experience and flight time. No 2: Their pilots will fly a plane that should have remained on ground for any number of reasons, and they run a greater risk of running out of fuel – like three Ryanair flights that had to call ”MayDay” the same day over Valencia in order to get on ground before the engines stopped. One aircraft had to be towed from the runway to the terminal once. That’s cutting it short, if anything.
Since any airline becomes a better airline if their pilots can feel safe and thus can concentrate on flying safely, it is a pity – and a huge misunderstanding including lack of communication of facts – that most low cost airlines don’t get it. An even greater pity is that passengers can not vote with their feet, since the information included in passenger travel documents does not state the employment status of the pilots, who pretty soon are going to do their best to bring them from A to B – with uncompromising safety.