Zero-hour pilot contracts threaten air safety, says study

4436380041_41b309aaf9_z.jpg [Chris/ Flickr]

Airlines are increasingly using zero-hour contracts, pay-to-fly schemes, and temporary employment agencies based outside the EU to hire pilots and cut costs, practices which undermine passenger safety and social standards, a report by the University of Ghent has found. 

According to the report, which was financed by the European Commission, airlines have turned to “creative hiring practices”. 6,600 pilots were questioned in a survey. More than a thousand of them were either self-employed, working for a low fare airline, hired through agencies, or were on a zero-hour contract. 

A zero-hour contract does not oblige the employer to offer work and the employee can reject any of the hours offered. While it allows workers flexibility, trade unions claim that zero-hour workers tend to earn less and are at risk of being exploited.

Employing pilots through work agencies based outside the EU has become common practice in order to benefit from lower levels of tax and social security payments.

Young pilots have the worst working conditions. Pilots under the age of 30 tend to work for low-fare airlines (LFA) such as Ryanair and Easyjet, while experienced ones fly for a network airline such as Air France. Zero-hour contracts, or pay-to-fly schemes, are also more common among younger pilots, and low-fare airlines have the weakest employment contracts, the report said.

Less experienced pilots tend to enroll into pay-to-fly schemes. They pay the airline to fly its planes in order to gain experience, a practice the study wants banned globally.

Bad contracts cause pilots to change jobs frequently, the report found. Almost half of them said they had changed airline more than seven times since the start of their career. Better social protections and working conditions were the main reason for moving jobs.

“The study clearly shows that casualised pilots are worrying about their working conditions and where to pay their taxes and social security,” said Emmanuel Jahan, chair of the European Sectoral Social Dialogue for Civil Aviation, a European body for aviation employers and employees. 

The contracts “should raise an intense sense of urgency, more specifically with regard to flight safety, fair competition and workers’ rights,” the report said. 

Norwegian Air International (NAI) controversy 

NAI is one of the airline companies that has come under fire in the past for allegedly trying to escape paying taxes and social contributions in the country where its pilots were based. 

The company applied for an Irish operating licence, even though NAI had no aircraft or long-haul flights going out of the country. The airline wanted to offer flights from the UK to the US with crews employed in Singapore through a local agency.

Jahan, as chair of the European Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee, called on the Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc to investigate and take measures in a letter sent last November.

“Through business models like this, we risk entering a downward spiral to the social bottom, risking thousands of qualified European jobs,” wrote Jahan.

Air France, KLM, and Lufthansa are among the nine companies that signed the letter.

Last week, Commissioner Bulc replied to Jahan, demanding proof that NAI was undermining the EU’s social standards.

“Norwegian investors have the right under the EEA [European Economic Area] agreement to create an airline in the European Union – in this case Ireland – to fly under EU traffic rights,” wrote Bulc.

Enforcing and monitoring the application of labour law is a competence of each member states, she added.

The report will up pressure on the Commission to look into the issue. Jahan said he hoped Bulc would follow the study’s recommendations.


According to the researchers, hardly any measures to combat bogus self-employment had been taken. 

“Even with strong national legislation in place, an effective tackling of bogus self-employment will still be highly dependent on the cooperation of the bogus self-employed person,” the report said. 

But in most cases, such workers have no incentive to bring the case to court for fear of losing their jobs or diminishing their chances for better future employment.

The researchers suggested amending the EU regulation for the coordination of social security systems to boost cooperation and exchange of information between EU countries’ inspection authorities. Developing European social security rules for highly mobile workers could also help reduce bogus employment.

“The research has revealed that there is neither a global nor a European oversight of the total amount of flight hours a pilot clocks up,” the report said. A global system counting flight hours per pilot would ensure pilots are not overworked.

Chair of the European Parliament Employment Committee Marita Ulvskog MEP said,

"The report is alarming. The fact that some airlines only have around 30 percent of their pilots employed directly has obvious consequences for the well-being of staff and air safety. Aviation in Europe needs political initiatives in order to provide safe and attractive employment, for it to be safe and easy to fly, and also to create stable conditions that ensure that also network airlines like SAS can continue to compete."

Representative of the European Parliament's Transport Committee Jens Nilsson MEP said,

"Many employees bear witness of the problems facing aviation today. This study now gives us ample proof of what they have been saying. That the aviation sector has started to resemble the Wild West, with flags of convenience practices and pressure on working conditions and safety routines by ruthless employers."

Aviation supports 5.1 million jobs in the EU and contributes €365 billion to European GDP.

Despite the current economic crisis, global air transport over the long term is expected to grow by around 5% annually until 2030. 

The market was gradually liberalised through three successive packages of measures adopted at EU level which covered air carrier licensing, market access and fares.

While restrictions that had limited air transport markets in Europe and prevented cross-border investment by European airlines have been removed, new challenges have come up, mainly related to declining social standards among pilots and staff.

The European Commission announced in December it will present in 2015 an aviation package that will include a communication identifying challenges and measures for improving the competitiveness of the EU Aviation sector.

The "Atypical Employment in Aviation" report will feed into the upcoming legislation. 

  • 2015: Commission expected to table "aviation package"

European Commission

University of Ghent

  • "Atypical Employment in Aviation" report

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