Germanwings prompts pilot review but industry must also deal with workplace stress

Following the tragedy of Germanwings flight 4U9525, the US Federal Aviation Administration has said it is launching a study into how pilots’ mental health is monitored. It follows on from Lufthansa’s announcement of spot checks, much like dope testing in sport.

The deliberate downing of the flight in March 2015 by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz led to 150 deaths and prompted calls for safeguards such as a requirement for two people to be present in the cockpit at all times and greater sophistication in the screening of pilots.

However, this tragedy also highlighted the potential dangers of precarious employment contracts and the anxiety such contracts can cause. Murder-suicide is a rare and extreme act, but there was much speculation about Lubitz’s mental health and what may have led or exacerbated his situation. We know that he was “signed off” work on the day of the disaster but still chose to fly. Also, it would seem that he was under considerable pressure at work – Lubitz’s girlfriend was quoted by the BBC as saying: “He became upset about the conditions we worked under: too little money, fear of losing the contract, too much pressure”.

Setting aside the speculation, this experience of work as described by Lubitz’s girlfriend chimes with the results of studies carried out by us on behalf of the European Cockpit Association and the European Transport Workers’ Federation.

The studies show that precarious work (by that we mean low paid and uncertain work), leading to insecurity is becoming widespread across the European civil aviation industry. For instance, in response to a questionnaire survey completed by more than 2,700 pilot and cabin crew respondents in 2014, barely one half of respondents agreed that their work gave them security. Of the 2,700 respondents around 70% were in permanent full-time employment.

In terms of pay, legacy airlines have used low-cost subsidiaries, such as Germanwings (Lufthansa), Iberia Express (Iberia) and Transavia (AirFrance/KLM), in order to reduce labour costs. Terms and conditions of employment can be as much as 40% lower for employees at the subsidiary compared with counterparts who work for the mainline carrier.

Benefits and zero hours-style contracts

An alternative strategy adopted by British Airways has been to develop BA Mixed Fleet – new staff within the mainline operation employed on inferior (low-cost) terms and conditions. The idea is to grow this fleet of staff to service short-haul and long-haul flights if and when possible. It’s not a case of directly cutting benefits for Worldwide and Euro fleet staff, but gradually reducing the average staff costs.

In response to the 2014 survey, fewer than 10% of respondents employed as cabin crew on Mixed Fleet contracts agreed that the pay and benefits were adequate to support their current lifestyle, while none agreed that these were adequate to support future life plans. Shortly after the survey was completed, the Guardian reported that Mixed Fleet staff were reliant on working tax credit (state benefits) to supplement their income. In effect, the government was subsidising BA’s operations.

As for uncertain work, precarious contracts are perhaps most widespread at what have become known as the “ultra-low cost carriers”. Pilots at Ryanair, for example – whose current business strategy is “not to unnecessarily piss people off” – are predominantly hired on “self-employment” contracts. In 2013, around 70% of pilots were hired via these contracts and agencies such as Brookfield Aviation International (which hires the vast majority of Ryanair pilots), with no obligation on the part of the agency to offer work.

This arrangement is tantamount to a zero-hours contract – one crucial difference between the Brookfield contract and a zero-hours contract, however, is that the former imposes obligations on the pilot to provide three months’ notice of contract termination. In 2013, a Ryanair pilot won a test case that found that the firm could not impose a €5,000 “penalty” fee for not serving a full three-month notice period.

Ryanair is not the only airline to use “atypical” arrangements, a report from the University of Ghent in February 2015, based on a survey of 6,600 European pilots, found that Norwegian also hired many pilots in this way. Easyjet and Germanwings, however, used more traditional contracts.

Current business strategy is to be nice. Juanedc, CC BY

In the UK, the process of qualifying as a commercial pilot can take around three years and cost up to £100,000. Saddled with such a debt, a newly qualified pilot undoubtedly experiences considerable anxiety about finding and retaining a first officer job at an airline. The combination of precarious work (and the attendant insecurity) and the need to retain one’s job may influence decision-making processes and lead to poor judgement, for example reporting for work when unwell/unfit for duty.

Aside from poor judgement, precarious work also has the potential to impact on safety in other ways. Alarmingly in our 2014 survey, only at two of the eight airlines included in the study did the majority of participants agree with the statement: “Employees feel comfortable reporting safety concerns to management”. One respondent commented of their colleagues that: “they are scared to report safety issues as our employment guide allows crew to be fired very quickly”.

One consequence of the tragedy of flight 4U9525 has been the consideration of factors that may have contributed to the tragedy and possible means of preventing such an incident in the future – the deteriorating conditions of employment faced by flight and cabin crew should not be overlooked.

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