The 48-hour British Airways strike that is disrupting thousands of passengers across the globe is unlikely to be replicated in Australia, aviation industry heavyweights say – but that doesn’t mean our pilot industry is without its issues.
Pilots with the UK company are striking over wages and working conditions, in an industrial relations move that’s causing flight delays and cancellations on routes around the world.
Australian aviation stalwart Neil Hansford said he was not surprised British Airways found itself in this situation.
“There’s not a day that passes by that there’s not a skirmish at British Airways,” Mr Hansford, who worked in aviation in the UK for 18 years, told The New Daily.
“It’s a company that’s gone through that many changes. It’s not the company that it was and its industrial relations are a reflection of that.”
Mr Hansford cited the increasing competition in the European market – with the arrival of low-budget carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet – as putting pressure on British Airways to cut costs where it could.
Swinburne University aviation senior lecturer Peter Bruce described the situation as “diabolical”.
“It’s going to take them days to recover from this,” Dr Bruce told The New Daily.
“The recovery coming out of (this situation is) highly disruptive, with aeroplanes and crew all over the place.”
Mr Hansford described the working conditions for Australian pilots as “very generous”, in terms of wages and working conditions.
He said while key airlines Qantas and Virgin would have “no problems” finding pilots, it wasn’t the same situation for the country’s smaller operators.
Regional Express – or Rex – Airlines has long aired its frustrations at being able to retain pilots, who were instead poached by the bigger two.
“It’s prestige, and the dollars are fine,” Mr Hansford said of the allure of flying for Qantas or Virgin.
The aeronautical industry is torn between having a pilot shortage, and having a pilot oversupply – it depends on which side of the industry you ask.
Airlines say there’s a pilot shortage in the country, a claim supported by figures that show the number of pilot licences issued annually has fallen by about 500 over the past decade.
They use this claim to push hiring international pilots, while highly skilled home-grown pilots take advantage of a global shortage by taking up $400,000-a-year postings with Asian carriers.
Mr Hansford said the steep layout to become a pilot – followed by a slow return on your investment – could be behind a lag in young Australians taking up the career path.
It costs about $150,000 to become a pilot, Mr Hansford estimates, which is “not very attractive” when a first-year wage is about $50,000.
“The money is made at the backend of your career,” he explained.
‘It grounded the country’
Australia hasn’t been without its own aviation industrial issues.
Dr Bruce recalled the 1989 pilots strike, which disrupted the country’s skies for months.
Again, it was over a pay dispute, with pilots angling for a 29.47 per cent pay rise.
It resulted in the resignation of about 1500 pilots, with the military and international carriers and pilots brought in to keep passengers in the skies.
Strike action began in August, and was resolved in January 1990.