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Being a pilot isn't what it used to be

Andreas Spaeth tr
August 10, 2018

The Ryanair strike once again focuses attention on working conditions in the cockpit. And they are particularly harsh at the Irish budget airline, which even forces employees to pay for water when they work.

Plane in midair during sunset
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H.-C. Dittrich

Today New York, next week Bangkok. Overnight stays in luxury hotels and the pleasant company of young flight attendants. The old cliches surrounding pilots are not dead — on the contrary, popular films like "Catch me if you can" keep the dream alive.

The reality looks quite different though. Now there is almost something like a proletariat of young pilots who have become hopelessly entangled in debt on their way to realizing their dreams of flying.

Surprisingly, wannabe pilots usually have to pay all or almost all of their training costs themselves. Yet inexperienced pilots often can't find a permanent job with an airline, which adds to the problem of growing debt. Many owe up to €150,000 ($172,000) and more.

Pay yourself

Ryanair pilot on strike
Strikes instead of a dream job. A Ryanair pilot fighting for a better deal in front of the company headquarters in DublinImage: picture alliance / empics

Increasingly young pilots, who have already passed their theoretical examinations and have practical experience in simulators or even in small private aircraft, are paying to fly on commercial aircraft in the copilot's seat, since this is the only way they can obtain certification, which is a prerequisite for a career as a commercial pilot.

This "pay-to-fly" principle is sometimes applied at the Irish low-cost airline Ryanair too, according to insiders. Young pilots are not paid for flying, but have to pay for the pleasure of sitting in the cockpit, making flying one of the only jobs you actually have to buy.

Many young pilots often live for years in near-poverty. So it's no wonder that a job in the cockpit has long ceased to be a dream job, especially since young people can earn much more in the communications or finance industries.

Who wants to work at Ryanair?

At Ryanair, which is the second-largest airline in Europe and carried 128 million passengers last year, the situation of pilots is often particularly precarious. As one of the world's biggest budget airlines it is also considered one of the worst employers among pilots. This frustration has been building up for many years and has now exploded in the current pilot strike.

Pilots had already left the low-cost airline in droves — reportedly over 700 alone in the past fiscal year. "That does not surprise me," says James Atkinson, a former Ryanair pilot who sat in the cockpit of Boeing jets from 2006 to 2014 and is now working for a Chinese airline, where he is much better paid.

According to the German pilot association Cockpit, starting salaries at Ryanair are between €25,000 and €30,000 a year. After five years, copilots can earn €70,000. Experienced captains make a maximum of €130,000.

Chinese companies by contrast offer experienced pilots up to €300,000, usually with a far better working climate, but one that is far from home. In contrast to the young copilots, there is a shortage of experienced captains worldwide. They have the choice whether they want to continue working under poor conditions or if they go somewhere else.

Ryanair plane
Getting a professional start with the budget airline is hard for young copilots. A Ryanair Boeing jet in HamburgImage: picture alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

No water on the job

It has been part of Ryanair's strategy to divide its employees across Europe at over 80 bases from Lithuania and Morocco to Ireland and Cyprus. In almost every country, pay is regulated differently and many pilots are not even salaried employees, but forced to work as independent contractors and must therefore pay double social security contributions, once as an 'entrepreneur' and once as an employee. This fragmentation is deliberate and has long made it difficult for employees to organize together.

Permanent employment on the same terms is therefore one of the most important demands of pilots. They are particularly angry at the fact that, in contrast to almost all other airlines, only actual flight hours are paid and not the time on the ground or hours due to delays. Even with a delay of several hours, employees receive neither pay nor money for expenses like necessary overnight stays.

James Atkinson reports, "On my days off I was regularly asked to fly at my own expense to other Ryanair bases where there were staff shortages," where he then had to help out. "Sometimes I flew exhausting shifts for five days before the laborious return journey to my home base. In summer I often spent only three days at my own base before having to go on and fill another shortage. This kind of thing is killing you," Atkinson said.

And it is exactly this "ping-pong" of unpredictable transfers from one base to another that is one of the pilots' main criticisms. Not to mention absurdities such as the fact that they even have to pay for their own water or coffee when on board. "No employee gets a water bottle for free from Ryanair. If you want one, you have to buy it," according to Atkinson.