Compare and Contrast

My ex is an airline pilot. He earns a deservedly high salary. Becoming a commercial pilot is no mean feat. He spent years earning less than minimum wage whilst instructing at a flying school in order to build up the required number of hours whilst at the same time studying for numerous technical exams,many of which require a minimum 90% pass rate. During this time he was entitled to very little in terms of benefit because he was fit for other work. The job centre desperately attempted to lure him off income support with offers of work in fast-food restaurants, instead of his piecemeal £2/hour flying job.

He was determined to make it and after almost 8 years of subsisting on next to nothing, was offered the position of First Officer with a major commercial airline. In order to qualify for the position however, he was required to pay £30,000 for his type rating on a Boeing 737. Most airline pilots enter the profession with debt that make university fees look like small change. Some airlines may pay part of the costs of type rating and deduct it out of your salary for the next however many years, others do not. It’s supply and demand, generally there are more willing to enter the profession than there are jobs, most don’t do it for the money, the terms and conditions have been whittled away by companies such as Ryan Air, they do it for the love of the job – dare I call it the Tom Cruise aspect! Once the self-loading freight are on, doors are shut, wahey, its up, up and away, but bustling air spaces and 5 sector days and increasing bureaucracy as well as much tighter security post 9-11 are making for a much more stressful working environment. The golden era of flying, when passengers made an effort to get on a plane, they dressed up, looked smart, some even wore a hat and pilots were revered as gods has long since past, although some airlines like JAL and Saudi still require their female crew to walk several paces behind the pilots when walking through the terminal. Ssshhh no-one tell Penny Dreadful, Polly Pot or Germaine Grimace, I think they’d explode in apoplexy.

Apologies, I digress. Anyway, ex paid a significant amount into his pension every single month, as well as contributing towards loss of licence insurance, the slightest health problem could mean that he lost his licence, and £50 a month in union fees to BALPA. Post 9-11 there was a massive spate of redundancies, people lost their jobs on a last-in, first-out basis. There have been periodic culls since then, the last a few years ago. Everyone was nervous. The other thing that happens when airlines make redundancies amongst flight crew is that Captains are demoted to First Officers. Not due to lack of ability, but they often find that having got rid of the most junior crew, there is then an imbalance of numbers and it is claimed that in order to save money, staff have to accept a massive drop in salary and a switch back to the right-hand seat. Most are grateful to hang onto their jobs; when there’s 200 surplus pilots kicking around on the job market due to a lay-off, another flying job is not so easy to come by.

Ex has to date been very lucky in that due to seniority he has kept both his job and his command. What he has not kept is his pension. Despite the significant portion contributed by the pilots, it seemed that during the boom, the company enjoyed the good times, was lax and deferred making their pension contributions, leaving an enormous deficit in the pension scheme. Through absolutely no fault of their own, the pilots were told that the final salary pension scheme would be closed to new entrants then a few years later  it was finally closed and replaced with an infinitely less generous scheme. All pilots have to give up their command at 60, according to CAA regulations. They may, with the permission of the airline, continue flying as a First Officer up until the age of 65, but the contract stipulates a retirement age of 60. Frankly after years of shift work and jet-lag, most of them are absolutely knackered. A frightening number seem to die within a few years of retirement.

Pilots accepted the huge amount of debt with which it was necessary to enter the profession as part of the trade off for doing the job they loved, hoping that they would be able to pay this back quickly. They have not been immune from rising house prices and inflation either. The pension that they worked hard towards, their  reward for their years of shift-work working in a highly stressful and pressurised environment has been taken away from them through no fault of their own. Their pay has been frozen for years and their terms and conditions gradually eroded. They have not gone on strike, recognising that to do so would be suicidal, the airline would undoubtedly fold, its slots and assets gleefully seized by another operator. They would have little public sympathy, despite the fact that their pension has been stripped and they have not had a pay increase above the rate of inflation since the early 90s.

Though initially angry , my ex is now remarkedly sanguine about the whole affair. He will defer his retirement until he is 65 and receive a much less generous pension than his older colleagues, one that bears no resemblance to what he was offered when signing his contract of employment. He wonders whether or not flying will continue to be such a draw for talented people, given the amount of hard graft and pecuniary hardship necessary to enter the profession combined with the loss of pension and increasingly tough working circumstances; pilots now having to accept legal minimum rest times and bearing increasing burden for ensuring efficiency in terms of fuel, turn-around times and so on, always with an eye to reducing costs in the face of severe competition.

Ultimately he believes that people will still be attracted to the profession, that vocation will outweigh the potential remumerary rewards, that people will always want to be airline pilots, just as they will always want to be teachers. When he talks about his reduced pension it’s with an air of regret for a previous golden age long since passed. “It couldn’t go for ever” he says, “we’re all living longer, healthier lives, we just have to accept that we are not going to be as lucky as our parents, I’m not going to starve, it just means that there won’t be as many luxuries as I’d hoped. Besides, I’d much rather go without an extra holiday once a year than pass on this mess to my little girl. It’s not what I’d hoped for but you just have to get on with it don’t you? I’m just lucky in that I’m doing the job that I’ve always wanted to do.”

One thought on “Compare and Contrast

  1. Similar thing happened in merchant shipping – from the 60s when my father started as an officer cadet on ships with a dozen or more officers and 40-50 crew, generous pay and benefits (as a 3rd engineer in the early 70s he earned about the same as a TV newsreader at the time), silver service meals and a huge final salary pension etc to today’s giant ships with a handful of officers and maybe a dozen crew with all the lines operating from Liberia or Bermuda (shipping’s regulatory Ryanairs).

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