The dramatic explosion of an engine on a British Airways jet in Las Vegas this week was a textbook example of how a well-trained crew handles an emergency. The aircraft was evacuated safely, with only minor injuries to passengers. The calmness and authority of the pilot, Chris Henkey, has been widely praised.
However, Captain Henkey’s background contrasts strongly with the experience of many newly qualified commercial pilots in Europe. The dramatic growth in air travel has created a substantial increase in demand for trained pilots.
Yet obtaining a commercial pilot’s licence is demanding and expensive, with costs in excess of €100,000. Many newly qualified pilots face substantial debts when they graduate.
Furthermore, a licence is not an automatic gateway to high earnings; junior pilots must build up their experience on specific aircraft types before they begin earning enough to repay their debts in earnest.
Often, airlines will only employ pilots who are already qualified to fly specific aircraft, so building up the relevant experience is vital to their future careers.
A number of airlines are taking advantage of newly qualified pilots by charging them for the privilege of flying aircraft on revenue earning flights, an arrangement known as 'Pay to Fly'. Such approaches are surely anachronistic and, were they more widely recognised, be unacceptable to public and passengers.
According to a recent study by the Ghent University entitled "Atypical Employment in Aviation", as many as 40 per cent of 20 - 30 year old pilots have no direct employment with the airlines they fly for. They will be contracted as self-employed via an agency or on a zero hours contract. This provides little security and places considerable pressure on heavily indebted graduates.
There are wider concerns. Pilots have a duty to ensure the safety of their passengers. Yet employment arrangements that are implicitly exploitative inevitably cause friction with aviation safety culture.
The Ghent University study showed that almost half of self-employed pilots did not feel empowered to "Amend the instructions of the airline based on e.g. objections regarding flight safety, liability, or regarding health & safety".
This situation has arisen in part because much civil aviation legislation dates back to Second World War; it has not been adapted to modern practises of outsourcing and self-employment.
Without this, aviation will increasingly tend towards the model used in the maritime world, with 'flags of convenience’' determined by regulatory flexibility and increasing use of non-EU flight crew flying EU aircraft. This is a slippery slope that Europe would do well to avoid.
There are many steps that Europe can take to help prevent this. Banning any ‘pay to fly’ arrangements would be an excellent first step. In addition, enhancing cross-border cooperation to prevent false self-employment status, and restricting outsourcing in the aviation sector would both be welcome, as would a dedicated European social security system that recognises the realities for highly mobile workers.
Europe's public benefits hugely from the recent growth in the aviation sector. Competition has made flying much more affordable for all, and this has delivered huge benefits to Europe's economy and its citizens. However, aviation is a sector that depends on public confidence like no other.
Pilots, whatever their experience, should not have the distractions of worrying about how they repay their fees when at the controls of a passenger aircraft. Policymakers should act to phase out these questionable practices as soon as possible.
The report is available from Ghent University.