Pilots describe toxic culture and airline mistakes

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, with news outlets and social media users continuing to report hordes of impatient passengers and mountains of lost suitcases.

Source: Getty Images

Canceled flights. Long lines. Staff leave. Missing luggage.

Sound familiar? The chaos that has engulfed many major airports in North America and Europe since the summer has not abated much, with news outlets and social media users continuing to report hordes of impatient passengers and mountains of lost suitcases.

Just this week, German carrier Lufthansa canceled almost all of its flights to Frankfurt and Munich, stranding around 130,000 passengers due to a one-day walkout by ground staff striking for better pay.

London’s Heathrow Airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport – two of Europe’s biggest tourist hubs – reduced passenger capacity and forced airlines to stop flying to and from their airports, angering passengers and airline managers alike.

US carriers have also canceled and delayed tens of thousands of flights due to staff shortages and weather problems.

Airlines have been vocal in blaming airports and governments. On Monday, the chief financial officer of low-cost European carrier Ryanair, Neil Sorahan, complained that airports “have a job to do”.

Unclaimed suitcases at Heathrow Airport. The UK’s biggest airport has ordered airlines to stop selling flight tickets.

Paul Ellis | Afp | Getty Images

But many in the industry say the airlines are also partly responsible for the understaffing, and the situation is becoming dire enough to threaten safety.

CNBC spoke with several pilots flying for major airlines, all of whom described fatigue from long hours and what they say is opportunism and a desire to cut costs as part of a toxic “race to the bottom” culture permeating the industry and worsening the chaotic situation facing travelers today.

All airline staff spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

“Absolute Carnage”

“From a passenger perspective, it’s an absolute nightmare,” a pilot for European low-cost carrier easyJet told CNBC.

“At the start of the summer it was absolute carnage because the airlines didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t have a proper plan. All they knew they wanted to do was try to fly as much as possible – almost as if the pandemic never happened,” the pilot said.

“But they forgot that they had reduced all their resources.”

The resulting imbalance “made our lives an absolute mess, both cabin crew and pilots,” the pilot added, explaining how the shortage of ground staff following the Covid pandemic cuts – those dealing with baggage, check-in, security and more . created a domino effect that threw a wrench into flying schedules.

A bit of a toxic soup… airports and airlines share an equal level of blame.

In a statement, easyJet said the health and wellbeing of employees was “our highest priority”, stressing that “we take our responsibilities as an employer very seriously and employ our people on local contracts on competitive terms and in accordance with local law.”

The industry is now hamstrung by a combination of factors: a lack of sufficient resources for retraining, former staff unwilling to return and poor pay that remains largely suppressed after pandemic-era layoffs despite vastly improved revenue for airlines.

“We pilots have been told we’re in a pay cut until at least 2030 – except all managers are back on full pay plus a pay rise for inflation,” said a British Airways pilot.

“Different governments with their restrictions and lack of support for the aviation sector” as well as airport companies are largely to blame 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 people, and now that things are back to normal, they can’t keep up.”

Although many airports and airlines are already recruiting and offering better pay, the required training programs and security screening processors are also severely cut and overburdened, further hampering the sector.

“They’re shocked, which is amazing.”

British Airways’ ground staff were due to strike in August over the fact that their full pay has yet to be restored – something particularly galling at a time when the chief executive of BA’s parent company, IAG, received £250,000 ($303,000 ) gross maintenance for the year.

But this week the airline and the workers’ union agreed on a pay rise to call off a planned strike, although some workers say it is still not a full return to their pre-pandemic pay.

Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

British Airways said in a statement: “The past two years have been devastating for the entire aviation industry. We have taken action to restructure our business to survive and save jobs.”

The company also said that “the majority of layoffs during this time period were voluntary.”

“We are fully focused on building resilience into our work to give customers the security they deserve,” the airline said.

IAG chief executive Luis Gallego, whose company owns BA, forfeited his £900,000 2021 bonus and took voluntary pay cuts in 2020 and 2021 and did not receive his 2020 bonus.

They just want the cheapest labor to produce their own big bonuses and keep shareholders happy.

One pilot flying for Dubai’s flagship airline, Emirates Airline, said the short-term mindset that employees take for granted has laid the foundation for today’s situation for years.

Airlines “have been happy to try to undercut the wages of a lot of people in the industry for years on the assumption that nobody has anywhere else to go,” the pilot said. “And now when people are exercising their right to go somewhere else, they’re shocked, which is incredible. I’m shocked that they’re shocked.”

A safety risk?

All this stress on airline staff comes on top of the often-overlooked problem of pilot fatigue, all the pilots interviewed by CNBC said.

The legal maximum limit for a pilot’s flight time is 900 hours per year. But for many airlines, “it wasn’t seen as an absolute maximum, but as a goal to try and make everyone’s load as efficient as possible,” the easyJet pilot said.

“The big concern with us is that we have quite a toxic culture, too much work,” reiterated the Emirates pilot. “All of this leads to a potential reduction in the margin of safety. And that’s a big concern.”

All of this is coupled with low pay and less attractive contracts, pilots say, many of which were rewritten when the pandemic upended air travel.

“A bit of a toxic soup of all these, airports and airlines share an equal level of blame. It’s been a race to the bottom for years,” the Emirates pilot said. “They’ll just try to pay as little as they can get away with without paying.”

An Emirates Airline spokesperson said: “We would never compromise on safety at Emirates and there are strict regulatory requirements for rest and flying hours that we adhere to for our operational crew. Our safety record in the air and on the ground is one of the best in the industry.”

They added: “We continue to recruit and retain our aircrew with competitive packages, career advancement and other generous benefits.”

“Race to the Bottom”

“Crown capitalists. Rat race to the bottom. There is no respect for the skilled workforce anymore,” the BA pilot said of the industry’s corporate leadership. “They just want the cheapest labor to produce their own big bonuses and keep shareholders happy.”

The International Air Transport Association said in response to these criticisms that “airlines are mobilizing resources as quickly as possible to meet passenger needs safely and efficiently”. He admits that “there is no doubt that these are difficult times for workers in the industry, especially where they are in short supply.”

The trade group issued recommendations “to attract and retain talent in the groundhandling sector” and said in a statement that “providing additional resources where shortfalls exist is among the top priorities of industry management teams around the world”.

“And in the meantime,” he added, “the patience of the travelers.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.