Airlines in free fall
Book review: Asbjørn Wahl
In the book “Free fall – At work in the air at low cost” the Norwegian journalist Pål Vegard Hagesæther takes a closer look at the development of the civil aviation industry over the last few decades. He takes the view of a (socially conscious) passenger and focus in particular on the effects on pilots and flight attendants. Mainly, however, he writes as a good, investigating journalist, travelling a lot, meeting and talking with many representatives of cabin crew in the actual companies. Quite a lot of them anonymous and in secrecy, since most of them risk losing their jobs if they criticise the company in public. What he finds is an industry, which is changing rapidly and considerably, where regulations have been removed, wages and pensions are cut regularly, working hours are extended and highly appreciated benefits are disappearing for the employees.
Since he is a Norwegian, the two dominant airlines in Norway, SAS and Norwegian Air Shuttle, are both subjects for investigation by Hagesæther. However, Qatar Airways as well as Ryanair are also under scrutiny. The former as an example of the rapidly growing airlines in the Gulf States and Asia, and the latter as one of the most extreme low cost carriers, which also has challenges rules and regulations in Norway. Overall, the book gives a god overview of the situation in the airline industry, by an author who is strongly concerned by what he sees.
A broader social question
There are two reasons why we, as passengers, should be involved in the developments in the air traffic, says the author. The first one is security. Competition has become so hard that security margins are under pressure from many sources. When pilots are afraid of being sacked if they have to take sick leave, or if they have to work continuously for 16 hours under tough weather conditions, the risk of accidents increases. The same can be the case if none of the cabin crew speaks the language of the country in which they operate. The increasingly creative structures of the airline companies reduce the possibility of public authorities to control and one of the results is that responsibility is being fragmented.
The second reason relates to our social model. We want people to contribute to our common good, like health services, pensions and social safety. When airlines set up hiring agencies in other countries than the ones the employees work in, the employees are excluded from this system. Some do not pay tax in the country they work, some have their pension rights moved to low cost countries and some get so low wages that they hardly can live on them. In short, this way of organising companies and the labour market is undermining our social model.
The author uses Qatar Airways as an example of the global shift in the aviation industry. The company started with one aeroplane in 1994 and has grown to more than 125 aeroplanes today. It has even won the prize of being the world’s best airline in both 2011 and 2012. The company is heavily subsidized by its home state. Most of the employees are migrant workers, which is the situation in Qatar in general. More than 85 percent of the population of 1.9 million are immigrant workers – mostly from India, Nepal and the Philippines (pilots, however, are mostly American and European). They can never be Qatari citizens, and they work under a system in which the employers are almost almighty. Cabin crew live in company flats, and there are about 7000 of them living in Doha, the capital of Qatar. The author describes in detail the extreme way the company deals with its employees – punishing them for breaking internal curfew rules, for talking in their mobile phones in uniform, for smoking in the private bathroom – even for reporting a rape to the police.
The author goes into detail in describing the working conditions at Qatar Airways. When you start working with this company, you enter into a three-year contract. In that period, you are not allowed to marry, have children or divorce. You can apply for the right to marry only after five years’ service. You have to live in company flats, be at home at four o’clock every night, and if you want to leave the flat before 7AM, you must apply at least one week in advance. You have to be at home the last 12 hours before flying. Smoking, alcohol and pork meat are banned in the flats, and company representatives can come on unannounced inspections at any time. You can only receive visitors between 7AM and 10PM. Only close relatives or colleagues of the same sex can stay overnight. While carrying uniform, you cannot talk in a mobile phone, listen to music, use chewing gum, smoke or be with persons of the opposite sex. You must apply if you want to go out of the country in your free time. When you return you have to register with your fingerprint at the airport. As one of the workers said: I feel like being in prison, or being treated like a child. There are extra strict rules for women, particularly how they look (for example, they cannot work if they have a visible pimple, burn or a scar). To unionise is of course banned. The employees must sign on to an obligation of secrecy. On top of all this, there is a culture of informing against each other.
Hagesæther has found out that to be a flight attendant is hard and dangerous work. There are more occupational injuries among flight attendants than among mineworkers or dockers. Sick leave is high, and problems as fatigue, sleeplessness and bad air quality are more prevalent than average. This is not the case only in the new low-cost carriers, something which is underlined by Ann Lisbeth Briseid (one of the few who is interviewed under her real name), who has worked as flight attendant in SAS for 30 years. She has experienced downsizing, increased working hours as well as work intensity, lost benefits and wage cuts repeatedly. Part of the wage has been turned into a percentage of taxi free sale on board – introduced because of competition with new, low-cost airlines with similar arrangements. Shift plans changes regularly, and at short notice, so it is difficult to plan one’s social life. Cabin crew are often on duty during weekends, with only every 7 weekend guaranteed free currently in the SAS. Most of these changes strongly influences the working conditions and thus health and safety at work.
Other tendencies in the airline industry which is described in the book is that pilots increasingly have to finance their education and training themselves, a pretty expensive affair – and with no guaranteed job afterwards. They often have to work for free in order to get the necessary experience with the different types of aeroplanes. The high wages among pilots are often only reached after many years of work. Also in SAS, the pilots have experienced increased workload (the pilots fly 50 percent more now than ten years ago). They have had to cut their wages and pensions, while the pension age has been raised and many permanent jobs have been replaced with temporary – often hired from temporary agencies – like Arpi Aviation, Parc Aviation, Rishworth, Crewlink and others. Ryanair in particular, uses self-employed pilots. The mental pressure increases under such regimes.
Outsourcing and offshoring
Outsourcing and offshoring are among the methods currently used by airlines as well as many other industries, not least when they want to avoid trade unions and high costs. The Norwegian Air Shuttle has become one of the leading ones in our sourcing and offshoring its employees – to countries with lower wages and pensions and fewer rights and benefits than Norway. In principle, Norwegian argues for a level-playing field, but only where it suits them. Where they can profit from breaking the rules themselves, they do so. There has particularly been a dispute regarding Norwegian’s use of Thai crews on flights from Norway to the US (they are already used on flights between Bangkok and Oslo).
On its long distance air traffic, Norwegian has become a leading company in so-called regime shopping. The book gives an example of pilots who thus have to comply with rules in at least five different countries:
- Firstly, their homeland. Let us say they live in Denmark.
- Secondly, they are employed through a temporary agency in Singapore.
- Thirdly, their base and workplace is Thailand.
- Fourthly, the airline company and many of its aeroplanes are registered in Ireland.
- Fifthly, they work for a Norwegian-owned company, with Scandinavian passengers as its most important target group.
Hagesæther also describes the experiences with Ryanair in Norway (the company established a base at Rygge Airport in Norway in 2009). Opposite from Norwegian Air Shuttle, Ryanair swear on not using local wages at their foreign bases. Both companies choose in other words, what is cheapest for them, and their strategies and arguments follow from that. Ryanair therefore means social dumping in Norway.
Hagesæther warns against a situation in civil aviation like what we already have seen in shipping for a long time (the Flag of Convenience system), and which is currently also spreading into road transport. In addition to Ireland, tax heavens like Aruba, Bermuda, Malta, Liberia, Georgia and Lithuania have now established registers for aeroplanes. Planes are also being leased from these tax heavens.
The commercial pressure is increasing, and Hagesæther’s view is that the civil aviation authority (in Norway) has more or less adapted to the new situation, focussing more on formalities than on realities. Competition is harsh, and many of the traditional, national air companies, which used to have strong unions and decent working conditions are under enormous pressure (in Lufthansa, personnel expenses amount to 30 percent of total costs, while the corresponding figure for Emirates is 18 percent).
Trade unions are banned in many of the newcomers and prevented through union busting in others (Ryanair has more or less got rid of its pilot union through union busting, and Delta Air Lines in the USA operates completely without trade unions for its cabin crew). The shift from permanent to temporary employment contracts contributes strongly to reducing trade unionisation. In Norway, the level of unionisations is still good, but unions are fragmented and divided between different confederations (Parat in the Confederation of Vocational Unions (YS) and Cabin Crew Union Norway, which organises most of the SAS cabin crew, and which quite recently joined the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO)).
What is the solution?
The author of this very informative book is sociologist and journalist at Aftenposten, a traditional conservative newspaper in Norway. Hagesæther’s sympathy, however, is clearly with those who have to pay the price for cheap tickets, cutthroat competition, cost cuts and ever more creative restructuring, namely the workers and cabin crew in particular. He concludes his book by proposing some measures to solve the problems in the aviation industry:
- The highly subsidised Gulf airlines should not be allowed to pour unlimited capacities into the market.
- Minimum wages, working hour regulations, competition policies and regulation of state subsidies should be introduced at the global level, preferably through the ILO.
- The EU should clarify its policy regarding working conditions for non-European crews.
- The EU should work for a harmonisation of social insurance fees as well as social services in its member countries (sick pay, pension, unemployment benefit).
And regarding security:
- At least one of the flight attendants must speak the national language in domestic flights.
- Pilots and cabin crew must be directly employed by the company for which they work.
- Working hours for flight attendants should be based on science and not on tradition or commercial considerations, like today.
- Fragmentation of responsibility for safety and security should be counteracted. Safety authorities should be given extended authority to inspect aeroplanes within a country’s territory, irrespective of where it is registered.
Through his book, Pål Vegard Hagesæther has given us a well-researched report on the serious situation and development in the civil aviation industry. A pity then, that the book is in Norwegian only, and thus just for a limited target group.
Pål Vegard Hagesæther
Fritt fall – På jobb i lufta til lavpri
(Free fall – At work in the air at low price)
 In Norwegian: «Fritt fall – på jobb i lufta til lavpris».