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The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association Newsletter.

Upfront with NZALPA President Tim Robinson

President Tim Robinson

I’ve just returned from annual leave with family in Europe and, as you’d expect, it’s always a bit of a ‘busman’s holiday’ when you can’t help but become intrigued with events such as the recent turmoil to hit Ryanair – now the globe’s fifth biggest airline. 

As well as keeping up with developments, it made me consider what the long-term implications could be for the wider industry, especially for the budget airlines and the associated contractual conditions for pilots. 

A recent feature in the Daily Telegraph outlined the number of issues that had faced Ryanair and its ‘larger-than-life’ Chief Executive, Michael O’Leary, over the past northern summer. Due to a reported pilot leave and rostering snafu, the low-cost airline had to cancel the flights of some 700,000 passengers before having to ‘firefight rumoured mutinies’ from both its pilots and cabin crew.

At the time of writing, it’s reported that 99 per cent of the original cancellations (and 90 per cent of the second wave) have been remedied and a ‘truce’ with the staff is seemingly close. What’s more, the Daily Telegraph says, new figures from IATA confirm that the aggressive growth displayed by Ryanair has made the carrier the fifth largest on the planet, and the biggest airline in Europe.

According to IATA, Ryanair carried 112 million passengers in 2016, behind only Southwest Airlines (151.8m), American (144.2m), Delta (143.3m) and China Southern (114.5m).

Having had a chance to discuss the issues locally, it seems that there could be some ‘silver linings’ to Ryanair’s industrial and consumer crisis, with a potential change in attitude towards the respective unions, including NZALPA’s UK equivalent, the British Air Line Pilots’ Association (BALPA) and the Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association (IALPA).

It is understood that a prevailing anti-union culture, supported openly under O’Leary’s management, was well-entrenched at Ryanair. So during this period, not only did BALPA, IALPA and equivalent cabin-crew unions need to point out loudly what happens when low-cost airlines are run at the cost of fair industrial relations practices, they also needed to tread carefully to build trust with a wary young cohort of pilots who’d been trained to believe anti-union rhetoric.   

A cynic would suggest BALPA, IALPA and the other unions never had a more fortuitous time to build its membership as industrial action was organised and even staff strikes considered. If only Ryanair had worked with the unions in the first place, such cancellations due to rostering issues would have likely been avoided, many claim. Was this also a time to call for better conditions and contract terms, a return to ‘safety first’ in both practice, not just rhetoric? Has the rapidly changing low-cost flight industry’s ‘race to the bottom’ finally reached its destination?

The fact remains that the low-cost airlines have generally had increasingly high consumer support.  During the last decade, literally hundreds of thousands of people have been able to travel to more places than ever before. This has provided jobs to many thousands of others, but prompted a downward spiral in working conditions and pay for those employees. 

When International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) members from all around the world met at this year’s conference, the outlook felt bleak. Open Skies agreements, Flags of Convenience and atypical employment practices were rampant across the industry and we had real concerns about what was going to happen next, fearing a real safety calamity or massive accident to be an obvious outcome. Who would have thought it would have been, mercifully, a rostering issue that almost brought one of the darlings of free-market, low-cost airlines to their knees? 

One thing the rostering issue has done is point out to the travelling public that those low-cost flights are just that for a number of reasons. While many travellers are happy to pay less to scramble to seats and go without food and refreshment on journeys, are they also happy to fly with potentially less-experienced pilots and a poorer safety culture? Are they also willing to face the possibility of cancellation of their holiday altogether?   

While the drama unfolded over at Ryanair, another low-cost UK airline collapsed – Monarch, leading to the loss of around 11,000 jobs. It is likely many of these workers, who have probably only known the uncertainty of atypical employment, will now seek vacancies with other low-cost carriers such as Norwegian Air or even Ryanair itself. Monarch’s demise has also led to pressure from the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) to increase airfares across the board to pay for the tax lost by such collapses. Have we reached peak low-cost air travel? 

For member organisations such as ours, I think the answer to keeping travellers and workers happy remains the same – cooperation and collaboration for airlines and their staff, through the best representation. I understand that behind the scenes a responsible dialogue is happening between BALPA, IALPA and Ryanair that might yet prove to be constructive. If so, I’m hoping this could be a welcome start for colleagues globally and closer to home, particularly for those in the low-cost airline industry.  

The travelling public have made it clear they want cheaper flights to more comprehensive locations but, for this to be sustainable, all sides must engage responsibly and learn to trust each other.

Have a safe month.

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