SOBERING FINDINGS ON SAFETY, FATIGUE, ATYPICAL EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS
RECENTLY NZALPA CONDUCTED ITS FIRST COMPREHENSIVE SURVEY OF THE ASSOCIATION’S GENERAL AVIATION MEMBERSHIP TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE ISSUES AND NEEDS OF THIS BURGEONING AND INCREASINGLY IMPORTANT PART OF THE ASSOCIATION’S WORK. NZALPA ADVOCATE TOM BUCKLEY REPORTS ON THE SURVEY’S SIGNIFICANT AND CONCERNING FINDINGS.
Although the majority of NZALPA͛s membership is employed as commercial airline pilots and air traffic controllers, now over 12% of the Association͛s members are pilots employed in the general aviation sector. These pilots are engaged in a wide range of operations including, but not limited to; flight training, small to medium aeroplane/air operations and helicopters.
This is also an area of significant growth, both as a sector and in NZALPA membership, meaning there was a critical need for confidentially asking questions and listening, initially through this research survey.
The subsequent findings should provide NZALPA and other industry stakeholders with a greater understanding of the circumstances and views of general aviation pilots operating in New Zealand.
The respondents were older and more experienced than expected with over half being over 30 years old and 69% having at least three years' experience as a working pilot.
80% of respondents had accumulated more than 1001 flight hours and 48% had worked for three or more operators.
This paints a different picture to the traditional perception of the general aviation pilot, which is a young pilot, in the infancy of his/her career, building hours to become employable as a pilot with a larger commercial airline.
The survey shows us that the profile of general aviation pilots is older and more experienced than widely believed.
Training and costs
Two-thirds of the pilots reported training in a flight school rather than an aero club. 70% reported using student loans to fund flight training, and 72% spent more than $70,000 to become a commercial pilot.
48% spent more than$100,000 to become a pilot.
Nearly half of all the respondents are currently working under a financial bond that will penalise them for leaving their employment.
One-in-five are prevented from accepting alternative employment because it would breach a bonding agreement.
The same number of pilots said that they did not receive sufficient education and training at work.
Not your typical employment agreement
20% of the pilots are employed under atypical employment agreements which contain precarious conditions.
Almost the same number reported that their employer had prevented or discouraged the pilot from taking sick leave. This is a disturbing figure in such a safety critical industry.
17% said that they are not paid for time worked preparing for flights and performing checks, while 14% of pilots had work cancelled without reasonable notice or compensation.
21% reported not being paid penal rates for working on public holidays.
While working as a pilot, one-in-five reported having to get a second job to make ends meet and to service debt.
Correspondingly, and despite these challenges, 71% of the pilots said they enjoyed working for their current employer.
A 'safe' safety culture?
The results of the survey are concerning regarding the safety culture in the industry:
- Almost a third strongly or mostly agree with the statement 'I have felt pressure from my employer to report for work when sick or injured'
- 40% felt pressure from their employer to exceed flight time, duty time or minimum rest limits or to operate contrary to the provisions of the employer’s operations specification or manuals.
- Almost a third would not feel comfortable reporting any safety concerns about their employers' operation to the regulator.
- 30% are sometimes reluctant to make legitimate decisions about flying, for fear of negative consequences for their current job or professional career.
- Only a fifth strongly or mostly agree that 'Pilots at my work who report safety-related occurrences are treated in a just and fair manner.'
- However, 94% strongly or mostly agree that 'I am prepared to speak up at work when unsafe situations are developing.'
- Almost a fifth said that, in their current flying role, they would not feel comfortable completing a fatigue report.
Pilots in their own words:
"(It's) the threats and pressure to get the job done. In 18 years of flying in many parts of the world, I have never been pushed to the point of walking away from aviation as I have in the last 18 months."
"I have just got off the phone with operations who want me to conduct a job in excess of 17 hours of duty starting late afternoon and concluding the following day, which also happens to be my first 2 consecutive rostered days off in the last 24 days. Comments made to me during the conversation were "you can imagine how this is going to go down" and "I don't have another option, so is that how you are going to go on that?"
"I feel sick after the conversation. I sit quietly in my room going over the conversation in my head waiting for the dreaded follow up call from the company director."
Is this acceptable in our industry?
The survey results provide some concerning figures for a safety critical industry that relies on sound decision making from key individuals.
A significant majority of pilots have to carry the cost of substantial student loans. Competition is significant to reach the relative security of airline or other secure work. This, combined with the narrow margins that general aviation businesses operate under has led to commercial pressures being transferred from the businesses to the working pilots.
This can be particularly difficult for new entrants to the industry saddled with substantial debt and limited opportunities.
NZALPA is concerned that this pressure on working pilots risks accumulating into a negative industry culture where an unacceptable number of pilots are being pressured into unsatisfactory decisions that compromise safety.
Some of the answers to the survey necessitated action by NZALPA on behalf of the general aviation pilots concerned, but mostly the information provides the Association, our officers, board of management and wider industry stakeholders with much food for thought. Some have argued that general aviation work is a 'rite of passage' and therefore a necessary experience, no matter how risky or tiring, towards the real goal of flying for a major commercial airline.
However, many smaller fixed-wing and helicopter pilots display a passion for flying at this level, particularly as tourism and other opportunities not previously open to aviators become available, including eventual ownership of their operation.
But at what cost? Since realising these results and talking to many of NZALPA's general aviation membership proactively and as part of my advocate role, the question must be what are we prepared to accept in regard to ensuring our members are looked after and safe – an issue not just for individual pilots but also for the travelling public and the industry's reputation as a whole.
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