ANN CAHILL: ‘Bogus contracts’ blamed for pilot fatigue and safety fears

A damning EU-funded report claims low-cost airlines’ work practices for pilots compromises safety, writes Ann Cahill Europe Correspondent

Employment practices among low-cost airlines in particular are creating safety concerns, according to a comprehensive study funded by the EU for the European Cockpit Association which represents pilots.

Pilots falling asleep during flights; being afraid to report safety issues and turning up for work even when they are ill were all outlined in the report.

The report pointed the finger at non-typical working contracts, identified as bogus contracts in the 285-page report, and these are being facilitated by national aviation authorities and Irish employment rules, the study carried out by Ghent University says.

Employment law in Britain and Ireland allows pilots and others to pretend they are self-employed, when in reality they can work for only one airline. Experts in the industry in Ireland say our light-touch regulation is akin to that in the financial sector before the crash.

READ MORE: Ryanair contract practice ‘a threat to safety’

Any accident involving a pilot on one of these bogus contracts would create problems in deciding who was responsible for any compensation, the European Parliament employment committee was told at a hearing into the report.

The report also raised issues of fatigue: with up to half the pilots in a study carried out by the British Pilots’ Association saying they fell asleep unintentionally while flying and a third of those woke up to find that their co-pilot was also asleep; while 60% admitted to making mistakes due to fatigue.

Many of the 6,600 pilots who took part in the study had a number of jobs, but there is no way of knowing for certain how many hours a pilot has flown in these conditions, the Ghent report said.

Many of the pilots who were on atypical contracts said that they did not always take the safety measures they should — they would fly when ill; did not have time to do the pre-flight work as required; and were not encouraged or inclined to report safety issues.

The report suggests these pilots are in fact self-employed, especially since many said they could not change the instructions of the airline if they had concerns about flight safety, liability or health and safety.

The biggest number of responses came from Ryanair employees, followed by Air France, KLM, SAS and easyJet. About 70% of the pilots who said they were self-employed fly for a low-cost airline and many have contracts with temporary agencies.

Many have zero-hour contracts and are paid only for the duration of the flight and are not entitled to paid holidays, maternity or sick leave. They can be laid-off during quieter months and may not know how many hours’ work they will have.At the same time they need to pay their overheads and training loans which can be €100,000-plus.

The Ghent survey reveals 34% of Ryanair pilots have direct employment contracts; 27% were self-employed; 18% work via a company and 10% via a temporary work agency, making 66% with atypical contracts. Three other airlines use the self-employed method, Wizz at 21%; EasyJet 1.3%; and Norwegian 1%.

The vast majority — more than 90% — of pilots surveyed who were not directly employed by the airline but through ‘agents’ or ‘self employed’ , said Irish law applied to their agreement with the airline, even though less than a third were based in Ireland.

One pilot quoted in the report explained what this self-employed status actually means. “I have my own limited company along with a group of pilots working for the same airline. I have never met these fellow company directors, or even know their names. An accountant that my airline has nominated has, without my permission, signed off the company accounts on my behalf. My limited company then contracts my labour to another intermediary employment company who then supplies the labour to the parent airline. In reality they are the ones who decide everything like schedules, etc. I have no day-to-day decision over which work I do or even when I can take leave.”

“I constantly live in fear as a contractor because I have virtually no rights, in any country. As a contractor I can simply be told that my “services are no longer required” and be dismissed. In my company that can be over an issue as simple as not having an ID card to more serious issues as declining to fly extra flights because I feel fatigued.”

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Tax is also a big concern for pilots on atypical contracts. One quoted said he was investigated for tax with no help from the company and was making mistakes at work because he was so worried. He is taxed at source but despite this is treated as an independent business by the tax authorities.

The home base is a very important factor for pilots, especially if they have a family, since under the terms of their employment, they must live there. For 91% their “home base” was not where they considered home. One pilot said: “I’ve had five bases in four countries in three years. I am away from home most of the month, paying my own travel and accommodation to-from/at the “home” base. With a variable roster, planning your life is impossible.”

And following recent court rulings, the “home base” is where the person must pay their social security. But one reported having to pay the employers’ and the employee’s social insurance in the country he is based and where the airline is headquartered.

Different countries have different rules on nighttime and standby duties and rest times, as they have different employment law, and this is exploited by some companies who search for the country with most advantageous rules for them, the report finds, and says there should be a single EU-wide rule.

Around 80% of pilots flying low-fare flights say they are not paid for the time during layovers; for their hotel and meals between or during flights; while 60% say they pay for their own licences, uniforms and ID cards. Most Ryanair pilots said they were not paid for hours when flights are delayed. A third who fly with low-fare airlines are not paid for the time it takes them to carry out checks and preparations while a majority said they didn’t have enough time for pre- and post-flight duties.

The pay-to-fly schemes, not operated by Ryanair but by some other airlines, mean they must pay while they are on flights while they are gaining experience. But it does happen indirectly as Ryanair is among those airlines that require a pilot to have a ‘type rating’ which costs about €30,000 for the pilot to learn how to operate the specific type of airplane used by the airline and according to the airline’s specifications.

However, there is no guarantee Ryanair will employ the pilot, but if they do, the pilot goes through line-training as a third pilot in the cockpit with a specialised trainer on normal commercial flights until they are judged competent to land the plane on their own. Pilots are not paid during this time.

The report identifies the proliferation of private flight schools which charge about €100,000 “selling a dream to 18 -year-old school kids”, but with no regard for the fact that there are too many pilots for the available jobs.

As well as a questionnaire which went out to the pilots — up to 70,000 in total in Europe — there were national reports on 10 countries carried out by independent experts and supported by the project team at Ghent University.

The report listed areas of concern in each country and noted that in Ireland securing employment rights is complex and time-consuming while deciding your employment status is complex due to tax, social security and the employment authorities involved. There are few statistics and while atypical workers are in law guaranteed equal treatment, in reality they do not get it.

READ MORE: Ryanair contract practice ‘a threat to safety’

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