Aviation Adapts To A Turbulent World Of Work

ILO News– Turning an airplane around requires the combined efforts of 12 distinct commercial aviation job functions: gate, ticketing, ramp, freight, operations and baggage transfer agents, pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, aircraft cleaners, caterers and fuellers.

Turbulent times for aviation workers worldwide.

Turbulent times for aviation workers worldwide.

These teams may work for several companies, and they do not necessarily like each other.

Often they don’t communicate very much, if at all. And whenever delays occur, there is a mad scramble to point the finger elsewhere.

But things can also happen differently.

Many companies now have pilots who are willing to help load luggage, if that’s what it takes to take off on time.

“Pilots carrying passenger bags onto regional flights is not really a big deal,” a pilot working for a US company told ILO News. “I used to do it when I worked short haul flights.”

“We were basically given a military haircut: they shaved 40% off our pay, 50% if you include benefits.”

“But when management told us we also had to clean up after passengers—and they wouldn’t give us gloves or anything— that’s where I said no, no way,” he adds.

According to this pilot, who wants to remain anonymous, mergers and acquisitions have also had a strong impact on wages in the airline industry.

When his airline was taken over, he says, “we were basically given a military haircut – they shaved 40% off our pay, 50% if you include benefits. A lot of us are going to work 30 or so years and realize we can’t retire.”

Controlling Aviation Labor Costs

Labor was historically airlines’ largest cost, although in recent years it’s fuel that has taken the top spot. Revenues have increased in the last decade but, according to a report published in 2011 by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – which represents the airline industry – airlines have been struggling to make profits.

During the past 40 years, the net post-tax profit of the airline industry worldwide has averaged a paltry 0.1% of revenues, according to the report Civil Aviation And Its Changing World Of Work.

The emergence of low-cost carriers has put additional pressure on companies to reduce costs.

In emerging countries like Brazil and India, these carriers have gained a high market share of 50%and 70% respectively.

As air travel increases, the aviation industry will need more skilled workers.

“Airlines have only limited possibilities to influence fuel prices or aircraft costs, leaving labor expenditure as the category management can control,” explains David Seligson, an International Labour Organization expert for the civil aviation industry and author of the report.

The report says airlines are increasingly outsourcing and using agency labor, particularly for activities like ground handling and catering, maintenance and repair. One of the reasons for this trend is passenger numbers, which are rising.

“As air travel increases, the industry will need more skilled workers. Concerns have been raised about a lack of trained workers in the future,” explains Seligson.

According to the ILO report, passenger numbers are predicted to increase from 2.7 billion in 2010 to 5.9 billion in 2030. This would mean the number of direct aviation industry jobs in increasing from 8.36 million to 12.1 million.

The expansion and the increasing complexity of the sector bring “systemic risks”, says Seligson: employees falling ill or refusing overtime, delays in aircraft turnover at airports and passengers getting stranded because of lack of space on alternative routes, are a few examples.

Air transport is also exposed to external shocks caused by economic crises, pandemics, weather conditions and political incidents.

Using The Power Of Aviation Industry Relationships

While some of these problems are difficult to avoid, taking care of relationships between management and the various aviation professional groups working for the industry can make a difference: less conflict between workers and management, and fewer delays, complaints and mishandled bags.

“Partnering with unions, building supplier relationships, hiring people who are good at working in a team and caring for the well-being of employees seem to result in good quality service and high levels of productivity, contributing to a sustainable industry,” aviation expert Seligson says.

The ILO will have a Global Dialogue Forum on the Effects of the Global Economic Crisis on the Civil Aviation Industry at ILO headquarters in Geneva from Feb. 20-22, 2013.

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