After the latest massive strikes at Portugal’s Tap, Lufthansa and SAS, employment conditions in airlines has become subject to critical scrutiny. In fact, more and more cabin crew members are voicing their concerns over the fact that most airlines are only interested in further cost-cutting, as opposed to improving the well-being of their employees. With a number of such labor issues as long working hours, mediocre pensions and unsatisfactory pay, is the dream of becoming a pilot no longer worth fostering?

AeroTime investigates.


The license

There’s no secret that at the moment the industry is faced with an unprecedented shortage of pilots. In fact, according to FAA, the number of newly issued pilot certificates has declined by 30%, compared to 20 years ago. While the 2013 FAA statistics are certainly reflective of the recent worldwide recession, it appears that the problem has apparently existed for decades. So what are the reasons behind the decreasing attractiveness of a pilot’s career?

The first step towards becoming a pilot is to receive a Commercial Pilot License (CPL) or an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL). Depending on the location and program, such license costs anywhere from €40 000. In Europe, for instance, the average price of a CPL or an ATPL is around €45 000.

“Becoming an airline pilot requires HUGE investment, yet it is highly possible that the colossal training costs will never pay off,” says John.

Indeed, receiving a CPL or an ATPL marks just the beginning of a massive investment story. The second step in line is to get a type rating certificate, which allows flying a certain aircraft type beyond the scope of the initial license. Although in some cases training centers provide particular type rating along with the initial license,  many pilots opt for supplementary certificates, costing from €7 000 up to €20 000, depending on the aircraft type.

“After and if you start your career, you are burdened with a huge debt, and the airline management knows you can’t go anywhere else to start working at the very bottom, so they are free to handcuff you with a downward pressure on salaries and benefits. The current situation is really a creepy example of large-scale slavery in the 21st century,” continues John.

The experience

Working for an airline equals modern-day slavery?

Although there are some carriers who are eager to hire youngsters and provide them with type rating certificates, in order to work for a major airline a pilot will typically need a total of 3000 flight hours. With only a few jobs on offer for untrained youngsters, pilots who do not have much flying experience (usually under 1500 fh) are in a situation where they have no chance of finding a proper workplace. So how is it possible to get that much of experience for a young aviator, who has just invested tremendous amounts in education? Well, there is an option – invest more!

Indeed, there must be something wrong if a young pilot must pay for gaining sufficient experience even after getting the required certificates. However, it’s so common that it has actually earned a name - self-sponsored line training (also known as Pay to fly scheme). It is a practice when a professional pilot operates an aircraft while paying for doing so.  Prices range from around €18 000 to sometimes over €85 000 for a 'flight hour package' which generally consists of 500 hours with no salary involved.

 “Pay to fly takes unacceptable practices to a whole new level: the employment of pilots is no longer the case of an airline investing in its staff but a simple revenue generator. It is a blunt abuse and exploitation of young, “low-hours” pilots who are desperate to find a job,” comments the president of European Cockpit Association Dirk Polloczek.

The debt

Now simply consider a simple calculation: take an average of €100 000 to start your career as a pilot, add the insurance, fuel, consumables, airport fees, taxes, flight physicals, check rides, ground school, books, computers, medical exams, maintenance/annuals, and the required upgrades of equipment, on top of having to pay a flight instructor, and this is already enough for most flight students to walk away, despite their passion to fly.

But wait, if the student stays, will the tremendous investment ever pay off? According to various surveys, a monthly salary for a First Officer in Europe is around €3 400 before taxes. With the different income taxation systems in Europe, one is left with an approximate of slightly over of €2 000 in hand.  The situation is slightly better for an airline captain – subject to the sufficient experience, one could expect to end up with around €7 000 before taxes.

Working for an airline equals modern-day slavery?

In addition, it is clear that the vast majority would consider taking out a bank loan to cover tuition, so do not forget about the interest rates charged by banking institutions. Normally, it takes from 8 to 10 years to pay off student debt. Yet, some may be surprised to discover that the salary of a First Officer is similar to the pay received by a London underground driver.

When it comes to working conditions, in a 30-day month an average airline pilot will only work 12-15 days. But when you consider that most pilots commute to work from out of state, a normal four-day trip actually takes six days to complete. If a pilot gets two assignments back-to-back with insufficient time in between to return home, he or she could be gone for weeks at a time.

“With an annual salary of €19 000 (flying for a European carrier) I can't see how anyone can afford to "let his love for flying" actually keep him flying,” says John, who has changed his workplace and has since retired from flying. “Despite my love of flying I wouldn't recommend a flying career to anyone these days.”

And do not expect a happy ending here. Working for an airline used to be a dream job. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. And aside from the disgruntled staff, it has many more serious implications. Just recall the Germanwings case, when the unhappy, depressed and untreated pilot took his own life along with the lives of all passengers and other crew members on board. Needless to say, after such tragedies there are many ‘whatifs’ that come to mind. One of them is definitely concerned with the poor working conditions that pilots are exposed to all over the world, and it must be addressed before no other painful tragedies take place.