Airline Pilots Show Their Hand

Unionism Best Protection Against Companies’ Atypical Employment Models

By Capt. Don Wykoff (Delta), Chair, ALPA International Affairs Committee

“He’d rather cut off his own hands than sign a deal with a union,” has said Michael O’Leary, Ryanair CEO, according to The Irish Times. Nevertheless, Ryanair has recently negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with its pilots.

“The Ryanair pilots’ dauntless efforts to unionize forced their company’s about-face from an atypical employment model designed to exploit workers,” said Capt. Tim Canoll, ALPA’s president. “But Ryanair’s bid won’t be the last atypical employment model to surface in the international airline industry—and North American pilots should be watching closely.”

For decades, ALPA members have built collective agreements and advanced our members’ careers by bargaining directly with employers based on established national labor law. Now with globalization, some transnational and international airlines are attempting to work around this once-clear calculus for protecting workers by using so-called “atypical employment models.” The result not only harms individual pilots, but also jeopardizes fair competition for all North American airline workers.

For individual pilots, atypical employment models can come in different forms such as working under individual temporary contracts with an airline or an employment agency, or under a self-employment construct. However, the effects are the same: an unstable work environment without sick leave or work rules and a job that may disappear rather than a career pilots can count on.

“These atypical employment models are simply a method to shift risk from the employer to the employee,” explains Capt. Ron Abel (United), president of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations. The pilots’ expectations in terms of improving pay, working conditions, and career progression are diminished or nonexistent, along with the pilots’ ability to come forward with aviation safety issues without fear of retribution.

For airline managements, the atypical employment models allow them to leverage a murky international labor law environment to exploit their workers. Companies also use them to avoid tax, labor, and safety laws and regulations to compete unfairly in the international marketplace.


“People ask how we can have such low fares. I tell them our pilots work for nothing,” said O’Leary in a September 2016 story in The Telegraph. At Ryanair, an Irish low-cost carrier, pilots were originally hired under individual contracts with the company, but over time increasing numbers were hired by employment agencies that then “rented’ them to the airline.

In some instances, Ryanair pilots have been required to set up and become “directors” of stand-alone companies that sign service provision contracts with the airline. This “self-employment” model dramatically undermines the pilots’ ability to organize and negotiate fair terms and conditions of employment and appears to be tantamount to the deliberate circumvention of the rules designed to protect employees.

Capt. Otjan de Bruijn, vice president of the European Cockpit Association, stated in the magazine Trouw in February 2017, “The employment relationship is so complex in order to prevent pilots from being seen as employees. Ryanair does this to keep labor costs as low as possible. By pretending that their pilots are entrepreneurs, they do not have to pay them sick pay. They also do not pay any other employer’s expenses, such as pension premiums. And it allows Ryanair to pay as little tax as possible.”

Atypical employment models in transnational airlines like Ryanair leave airline employees particularly vulnerable. With more than 85 bases, Ryanair pilots are domiciled, based, and work in multiple countries under different laws and regulations. This lack of a single legal framework for workers, such as the one that exists in the United States and Canada, allows transnational companies to attempt to “divide and conquer” pilots when negotiating. While management may bargain separately with each country’s pilot groups or with pilots individually, its goal is often to reach the lowest common denominator for pay and working conditions.

On Sept. 5, 2018, the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association (IALPA) announced that its Ryanair pilot members had unanimously voted to accept the collective agreement reached with management on August 23. The agreement includes provisions on leave, promotion, and base transfers.

In the agreement, IALPA reported that the company and the pilots agreed how seniority is to be determined and to allow every pilot to see their position on the seniority list in relation to every other pilot. The agreement also allows pilots to bid for vacancies for promotion, base transfer, and leave. IALPA’s statement noted the importance of the pilots having a choice and that pilots can now exercise control over their careers rather than their management exercising sole control.

“While our members fully respect Ryanair’s operational model, they no longer accept the company’s highly problematic employment model,” said Capt. Joe May, a spokesperson for IALPA, in a September 5 news release. “After decades of declining terms and conditions, pilots in Ryanair have now firmly found a unified voice.”

Benefits of contract protections built on history

In North America, from the earliest days of legal protections for collective bargaining rights through the addition of airlines to the Railway Labor Act in 1936 in the United States and the Wartime Labour Relations Regulations of 1944 in Canada, a collective agreement or contract provided a model for protecting workers and advancing their careers.

Today, labor contracts affect pilots in three key ways by establishing procedures for interacting with the employer, fellow pilots, and even themselves. Not only does a collectively bargained agreement allow pilots to bargain wages, work rules, benefits, and career progression, it affords protections in the form of process and legal representation.

A collective agreement allows pilots to challenge legally a proposed practice by management that may not be safe or that may violate a contract or law. As a result, a collectively bargained agreement not only protects an individual pilot, but also acts as a deterrent for the future.

In addition, a union contract gives structure to a pilot’s relationship with his or her fellow pilots, governing everything from bidding schedules to maintaining seniority lists, and it helps pilots focus on the big picture and best practices in stressful situations.

Safety a concern

In 2015, research from the University of Ghent showed that one in five airline pilots in Europe no longer has a direct employment contract with an airline. “The Ghent study and our conversations with pilots reveal that the high workload, long days, the financial uncertainty, and lack of oversight and accountability of employers [created] by setting up complicated bogus self-employment structures lead to unsafe situations. Pilots no longer dare to call in sick, out of fear of losing their jobs, and they fly when they are actually too tired to do so,” states a September 2016 report titled “Shut up or you’re fired,” published in De Groene Amsterdammer, an independent Dutch newspaper.

“Safety regulators must look at an airline’s employment model when they consider whether it’s a safe operation,” said Abel. “While systems are in place to assess the technical safety of an airline, they don’t consider pressure that’s put on the employees that can undermine the safety-culture reporting environment that ensures the highest standards of safety.”

Pilots demonstrate unity

When IALPA pilots went on strike earlier this year, 100 percent of the union pilots participated. The experience of the Ryanair pilots and ALPA’s more than 85 years of history demonstrate the tremendous value of unionism and the integral role that collective action plays in the world’s airline pilots’ abilities to achieve fair wages, working conditions, and benefits while advancing safety, security, pilot assistance, and jumpseating.

ALPA makes opposition clear

In October 2017, ALPA’s Executive Board voted unanimously to provide financial, logistical, and staff support for the recent unionization efforts by pilots at Europe’s Ryanair, stating that, “We remain steadfast in our opposition to airline operations that avoid the direct employment of pilots by utilizing brokers that act as employers or requiring pilots to create their own companies that then rent themselves out to the airline. If these atypical employment models are allowed to proliferate, they will ultimately erode high labor standards.”

First but not the last

Ryanair will not be the last foreign airline to attempt to do business with an atypical employment model. Other airlines may do the same and seek to serve the North American market, which will put U.S. and Canadian pilots and our companies at risk from unfair competition and lower labor standards.

If the pilots involved are based in the United States or Canada and fall under these countries’ labor laws, securing the benefits of union representation will be an essential counter to their companies’ attempts at exploitation. Unionism will always give airline pilots an upper hand.

This article was originally published in the October 2018 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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