How the scramble for pilots is fuelling airline cockpit wars

IF anybody is in need of evidence of the stark commoditisation of airline pilots and the impact on their families, they need look no further than an unflinching account submitted to from a distraught airfreight pilot’s wife.

“He loves the flying, but the job is eating us alive,” she complains. “As the wife of a cargo pilot, I’ve seen his job conditions go from bad to worse,” she reveals in a comment posted on in response to the story: Why airlines can no longer afford to insult their pilots.

“He’s gone over three weeks each month. If we weren’t in this marriage for the long haul, it never would have survived,” she admits. “I hate his job and can’t wait for him to retire although, of course, he doesn’t get any retirement [benefits].”

She is also scathing about the company bonus schemes which have failed to materialise for her husband. “Bonuses? That has never happened,” she asserts. “The airline always juggles the numbers and then figures out that it hasn’t made the appropriate profit around bonus time.”

It is not a career path she would encourage others to consider. “Couldn’t recommend to anyone, male or female, to marry a cargo pilot unless you like living alone,” she says.

These acerbic observations bear testament to the deepening schism which is rapidly widening between airline management and flight-deck staff around the world — irrespective of whether the pilots fly passengers or cargo, short or long haul, writes Thelma Etim.

The rift is illustrated by Michael O’Leary, chief executive of European low-cost airline Ryanair, whose much-publicised, unashamedly disparaging appraisal of his pilots’ working conditions, further exposes how the prestige once synonymous with the profession is being eradicated by cost-cutting and disrespect. “Once you are trained and skilled doing it [flying], I would challenge any pilot to explain how this is either a difficult job, or how it is they are overworked or how anybody who by law can’t fly 18 hours per week could possibly be suffering from fatigue,” Irishman O’Leary controversially declared.

“We simply do not have enough pilots in the month of September and October to be able to allocate this volume of leave.”

The airline boss has placed himself in an invidious position. He has been forced to admit that his company “messed up” its pilots’ leave rota, which had changed from being allocated in the fiscal year (April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018) to a calendar year (January 1 to December 31, 2018), at the request of the Irish Aviation Authority.

“We are trying to allocate almost one-year’s leave in a nine-month period from the 1 April 2017 to 31 December 2017,” O’Leary told journalists. “We simply do not have enough pilots in the month of September and October to be able to allocate this volume of leave.”

Poor communication is part of the reason why so many pilots are unhappy in their jobs. According to the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association, Ryanair lost 700 pilots in the last financial year, as large numbers joined rival carriers. Norwegian Airlines has reportedly welcomed a host of them.

The pilots’ rota debacle forced Ryanair to set in motion the cancellation of 40–50 flights every day for six weeks, a move which is expected to affect more than 300,000 passengers.

Even a tax-free bonus offer of up to approximately €12,000 for individual captains and €6,000 for first officers to work overtime — along with a €10,000 annual pay increase — has failed to alter the bellicose stance of some of the Irish airline’s pilots, prompting Brian Strutton, general secretary of British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), to comment on the carrier’s “lack of flexibility” in the system.

“It seems Ryanair has been just about scraping through the summer [2017] schedule and, having no flexibility in the system, coupled with a miscalculation of pilot annual leave, has led to this disastrous situation,”

Strutton observes. “We believe these working conditions are leading to pilots leaving the airline after a few years to go work for others. The company needs to be a career airline, where pilots feel valued, not over-stretched,” he insists.

O’Leary has vowed to hire 120 replacement pilots to avert a new wave of cancellations. From where will he recruit them? Strutton has proffered his assistance: “We have around 500 unemployed pilot members [currently] looking for work who would be more than happy to work for Ryanair, should working conditions be improved in the airline.”

O’Leary has lost at least 100 pilots to rival low-cost carrier Norwegian, reports say, emphasising the rapidly-building bidding war within the worldwide airline industry for senior flight-deck staff.

According to new figures from planemaker Boeing, over the next 20 years, the Asia Pacific region, for example, will require 253,000 new pilots; North America 117,000; Europe 106,000; the Middle East 63,000; Latin America 52,000; Africa 24,000; and Russia and the CIS countries 22,000.

“…the aviation industry may need to think about creative ways to train and retain pilots both for now and for the future.”

A new survey conducted by global recruitment company Indeed, confirmed that the difficulty in hiring experienced pilots is intensifying. The job site also reveals that more than a quarter (26.6 per cent) of pilot vacancies take more than 60 days to fill.

Mariano Mamertino, economist at Indeed, asserts: “With the demand for air travel showing no signs of stalling, the aviation industry may need to think about creative ways to train and retain pilots both for now and for the future.

“On the other hand, the high proportion of pilot roles still open after 60 days could also point to a higher than average turnover, indicating increasing competition among airlines for seasoned aviators — and a need for constant hiring and re-hiring,” he observes.

Whilst there may be an abundance of junior pilots, the shortage of experienced first officers and captains cannot be underestimated and it comes as no surprise that Luxembourg all-cargo carrier Cargolux is likely to postpone the launch of its new joint venture Chinese airline until 2019, learns. The parent company’s well-publicised struggle to recruit pilots for the new project is one of the major stumbling blocks, along with securing financing and sufficient aircraft. has written extensively about Cargolux’s opaque and sometimes autocratic approach to addressing the concerns of its “extremely tired” and frustrated pilots over this subject. Earlier this year, unions representing the cargo airline’s flight-deck staff resorted to demanding an audience with one of the carrier’s main shareholders — the country’s government transport minister — because they were unable to extract any satisfactory answers from their own management about the airline’s future strategy.

Originally published at on September 25, 2017.



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Thelma Etim

Thelma Etim

I am the editor of air cargo industry news website, an alternative news and comment outlet for the global airfreight business.