Pilots warn skies becoming unsafe

A group of pilots protested in front of Norway’s Parliament this week, demanding a return to more airline regulation. They fear that a trend allowing airlines to avoid national labour laws and employer taxes can ultimately result in serious airline accidents.

PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet/Olav Heggø

The skies are darkening for airline pilots who feel they’re under increasing pressure, warn several from SAS. They protested an industry trend towards poorer working conditions in front of the Norwegian Parliament on Tuesday. PHOTO: Samferdselsdepartementet/Olav Heggø

“Developments in the airline industry have now reached a point where it’s necessary to sound the alarm,” Yngve Carlsen of Scandinavian Airlines (SAS)’ pilots’ union in Norway (Norske SAS Flygeres Forening) told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday.

Carlsen and others claimed that pilots increasingly are being hired only as independent contract labourers through a string of companies often set up by airlines in tax havens, with no offer of permanent employment. That means the airlines can avoid paying employer taxes and avoid various other Norwegian labour regulations.

Pilots themselves often end up working long days, up to 15 hours without what the pilots’ union considers an adequate break. Pilots fear the demanding working conditions, which are spreading from low-cost carriers to long-established airlines like SAS, will lead to at least one major accident over the next 24 months.

“The security net that was built up in the airline industry over the past 60 to 70 years, and which made the industry safe and efficient, is getting holes in it,” Carlsen, a pilot himself, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday. Pilots protesting in uniform in front of Parliament on Tuesday also aired their grievances on national radio and TV.

Profit pressure
Airlines respond that they take safety very seriously but all have been under severe pressure in recent years to cut costs in a market characterized by low airfares. “This is the price we pay to fly to Spain for only NOK 299 (USD 40 at current exchange rates),” Carlsen said.

An investigation into the cause of a fatal crash of a flight bound for Buffalo, New York in the US in 2009 was blamed on human error. Both pilots on board had been awake for nearly 24 hours and both were working on so-called “bogus” contracts that gave them no job security and prevented them from refusing to work as scheduled, prompting US officials to tighten regulations.

SAS has been hit especially hard in recent years by competition from low-fare and low-cost airlines, run by executives who counter that SAS and its personnel haven’t succeeded at adapting to a deregulated market. Some also complain that state-controlled carriers still have unfair advantages over start-up airlines. SAS’ pilots counter that pilots who are responsible for “so many passengers on board must at least be employed in the company responsible for the airline’s operations.”

Carlsen said the pilots don’t blame consumers for the decline in working conditions in the airline industry. “It’s the market that is imperfect,” he told Dagsavisen. “We think that regulators must return to the field. You can’t let the market decide everything.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund