Air Cargo Newsdesk

Why airlines can no longer afford to insult their pilots

Why airlines can no longer afford to insult their pilots

HAS Lufthansa made a fundamental error in its treatment of its pilots? Does that question mark apply to the entire airline industry?

Flight-deck employees of the leading German airline, including its cargo arm, have gone on strike for the 14th time since 2014, after pay talks between its pilots’ union Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) and management broke down again, writes Thelma Etim.

VC, which represents about 5,400 pilots, says its members have not had a pay increase for more than five years and Lufthansa is offering a pay freeze only, according to a report from Reuters.

The unimpressed union is reportedly seeking an average annual pay rise of 3.66 per cent – in line with Lufthansa’s profits of US$5.4bn over that period.

It all sounds familiar. Just like legacy cargo carriers Cargolux and Air France-KLM, Lufthansa is struggling to compete against the powerful new wave of carriers fashioning a new economic and business model, whilst experiencing extraordinary growth, innovation and profitability.

They include Qatar Airways, AirBridgeCargo, Volga-Dnepr, Turkish Airlines, Etihad and Emirates – plus a raft of regional low-cost passenger carriers.

Acute shortage of pilots

Forced to downsize, Lufthansa’s approach to its pilots’ demands does not appear to be any better than counterparts Cargolux and Air France-KLM. Lufthansa’s only achievement in the negotiations thus far appears to have been the successful curtailment of the ‘negative’ press coverage of its surreptitious discussions with VC. In the face of dwindling profits, surely avoiding embarrassment (by hiding from the media) is the least of its problems.

Whether they like it or not, pilots remain the nucleus of any airline. Put simply, until the advent of pilotless commercial aircraft, no pilots, no airline.

Some airlines are already suffering from acute pilot shortages. Cargolux, for example, is currently struggling to find pilots, having revised its terms and conditions for flight-deck contracts, sources say. The Luxembourg all-cargo carrier is so short of co-pilots that flights are being delayed for several hours “or even possibly cancelled,” insiders reveal.

Former Cargolux chief executive Dirk Reich was apparently advised that the new contracts will become a major barrier to recruiting the same numbers of quality pilots as in the past. Unsurprisingly, the mood among Cargolux’s pilots is now “at an all-time low,” according to close observers.

Why else has Southwest Airlines of the USA acquiesced to a new contract which will see its pilots’ pay rise by almost 30 per cent over four years? And pilots working for Delta Air Lines are also in the process of voting on a contract offering 30 per cent pay increases. If Delta pilots approve the deal, United Airlines’ pilots will also see an augmentation in their salaries, under a clause that ties their pay rates to Delta’s, reports say.

Global, political, economic and market challenges

Pilot pay is not the only concern casting a pall over the operations of Lufthansa and other legacy carriers engaged in crucial restructuring processes to weather the constant onslaught of global, political, economic and market challenges. In July, Boeing released its seventh pilot and technician report, which forecasts that between 2016 and 2035, the world’s commercial aviation industry will require approximately 617,000 new commercial airline pilots.

Asia-Pacific is the region expected to require the greatest number of pilots (248,000) over this period due mainly to expected growth in the single-aisle low-cost carrier market, while North America’s increased pilots demand (112,000) will be the result of new markets opening up in Cuba and Mexico. Demand in Europe has increased responding to a strong intra-European Union market, the Boeing study also reveals.

Region New Pilots
Asia-Pacific 248,000
Europe 104,000
North America 112,000
Latin America 51,000
Middle East 58,000
Africa 22,000
Russia / CIS 22,000

Source: Boeing

The projections indicate that airline pilots will find themselves in a very strong position in the very near future – even sparking bidding wars for their services. Sources suggest this is already happening, with some pilots switching from one airline to another, lured by more attractive packages and prospects.

It is a situation that will become a major stumbling block for all-cargo airline Cargolux as it comes under pressure to recruit talented new people for its proposed Henan-based offshoot Cargolux China whose launch date has already been put back. How many pilots are there who would happily uproot their family lives to live in the middle of China? How would such a change work for schooling, language, social life etc?

“..growing lack of suitable candidates”

The critical shortage of pilots amidst growing demand across the entire aviation industry is the next major headache for some carriers, especially amongst those desperately looking to cut costs. Another report warns they should be doing the opposite.

“Due to the increasing demand for pilots and a growing lack of suitable candidates, airlines need to develop strategies to ensure they attract and retain, the right crew,” asserts global risk management company Marsh, which has suggested a number of vital alternative strategies for carriers. These include conducting regular pay reviews.

“Given that the cost of flight training is considered to be a deterrent for young talented [people], they are more likely to be attracted to airlines who offer generous packages covering these costs,” the company explains. “Having then borne the pilot training costs, the airline must seek to protect its investment by taking proactive care to retain its staff.”

The Marsh report cites improving work conditions as a significant factor that carriers should consider by “taking steps to ensure their corporate culture promotes a better work/life balance” for employees.

“For example, longer rest periods, more regular schedules and revisions in the number of hours they are required to fly annually could all have positive effects,” it suggests. The truth is that most pilots try to maximise the number of hours they fly to earn lucrative bonuses worth as much as 30 to 40 per cent of their salaries.

But there remains a big gap in expectations between airline managements and their pilots. From the airlines’ current management perspective – and even though there is a shortage of pilots – airlines are unlikely to want to encourage their pilots to spend less time in the air, the report insists.

Offering enhanced employee benefits is another tactic carriers can employ to distinguish themselves from the competition. “Given the unique challenges faced by pilots, most airlines recognise they need to provide specialised aviation employee benefits coverage, as opposed to some of the more generic employee benefit packages available,” the report says.

Such niche insurance coverage typically falls into four key areas: personal accident, term-life, emergency medical expense, and loss of licence.

The report concludes that as this race for the best flight-deck talent intensifies, airlines will be forced into re-thinking their people strategies. “Given [carriers] operate within an often harsh and volatile economic environment, airlines will need to explore a variety of creative approaches to attract and retain crew, beyond simply raising salaries – certainly one approach is to put in place an aviation employee benefits programme that distinguishes one airline from its competitors.”

“Will airlines change their attitude towards their pilots?’ – tell us what you think by voting on our Twitter page


  1. No life, little money, poor health, poor insurance coverage, full responsibility for everything, taking all the financial risks from the very first hour in a Cessna with no commitment from airlines, paying for type ratings, changing bases al the time, etc, etc… Here are the terms of this job now. Young generations can’t be asked and won’t take all this burden.

    I have started turning candidates away from this job, telling them about the miserable risk/reward ratio and the bully-like behavior of many employers. I must have reached a score of 10 who will never take a seat on a cessna in order to be a pilot ! I really don’t want them to live the misery I am in. And I feel I have saved their lives !

    • Thank you for your insightful comments. The shortage of pilots in the very near future will have a marked impact on the aviation industry.

      • Obviously many carriers still don’t realize what is happening – or it isn’t happening at all and it’s only us, the pilots who want to believe it to be true. Or maybe this is all a scam by the airlines to make sure enough young people fall into the trap so that they can guarantee to have enough cheap labour for the future?!
        Anyhow what I still percieve is an arrogant demeanor by many major carriers regarding pilots and pilot recruitment. Apart from filing applications, which is still a pain in the a**, airlines constantly shift their requirements around so much that even highly experienced pilots meet them one week, then, next week it’s again not good enough.
        Or a carrier lures experienced First Officers onto a bigger plane to establish a new fleet and operations, needing their experience – just to tell them they will not be promoted to Captain in the coming years. All the while FOs on the other fleet are promoted after minimum hours and time in the company, and then may transfer as Captain with just 500h PIC to the big boy. Is this the way how to treat professional employees? At least the company might believe to gain loyal and cheap pilots when promoting youngsters 30years, 4000h total, 500PIC) into the left seat of a widebody….
        This industry makes me sick. I stopped long ago to recommend young people to become a pilot.

        • It’s a sorry state of affairs. At what point does flight safety become the driving issue? Thank you for contributing.

    • Absolutely spot on.

      You’ll always have your oddballs who’ll do anything to work for nothing, but, more damaging, has been the myth that pilots are paid well so it’s worth paying the costs for training/ratings etc. That’s how the majority are caught.

      Now that facade is crashing down and people are realising what a mess this industry is in. I turn people off it, because I don’t want to see them pour money down the drain.

      • How sad that such an honourable profession has become so tainted.

  2. Low pay, long hours, and 21+ days away from home per month, have made the airline/air cargo career not a good option for young people. Not enough young people have been entering the profession for many years, and it will become a bigger problem as we see fewer coming out of training while retirements increase. Automation is ready, DARPA’s ALIAS program has been preparing for years and is mature.

    • Thank you for proffering some rather stark reasons why your profession is now struggling to attract young talented people.

      • Well I have been working for airlines since 2005 (SkyEurope Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Skymark Airlines). I had to leave Europe for China and after three years I left for Japan…..all with my family following me. My kids are happy in the schools. My wife being happy in the new home and enjoying new community. And me, flying some 850 hours a year making some gooooooooood money being thankful and happy for having this dream job. But maybe I am the lucky one, or just ignorant…….but maybe both since ignorance is a bliss.

    • Believe me, commercial aviation will rely on Pilots (humans) for a long long long long long time ahead….

      • We all hope you are correct. Thanks for the post

  3. These issues with attracting new pilots to replace retiring pilots, and new pilots to meet the global demand for air travel are brought upon the air carriers by their own doing. By conditioning and allowing the consumer to drive airline ticket prices to next to nothing, the airlines have now changed the scope of air travel from a luxury, to a right. You can not sustain the wage increases demanded by labor (and the ever tightening pool of available pilots) if you allow the consumer to pay rock bottom prices. Thus this cycle of gains in pilot wages and work rules will be erased in a few short years by the inevitable backslide of the airline industry. Concessions, lay-offs, bankruptcy, and all that come along with it are the safety valve on the entire industry to weather a downturn. This cycle of course resets the clock back 10 years in the wage and compensation packages for pilots, and also puts a similar gap in new pilots getting started in flying.

    • Thank you for your comprehensive description of why pilots are undervalued by some airlines.

  4. Very well written. Sadly I live in an area of this world where racism is a huge issue. White pilots are not welcome and standards are thrown out of the windows for politically connected pilots who can barely fly. I hope the airlines here recognise their mistakes before accidents happen.

    • Thank you for your comments. All respect.

    • I’m curious what part of the World you are referring to??. I know this goes on, just wondering..

    • RACISM??? “White pilots are not welcomed”???? Where the hell do you live???? I’m a BLACK professional pilot in the U.S. and I’ve never seen anyplace on this entire planet where a WHITE PILOT was denied a job because he or she was white. PLEASE give the rest of us significant proof of that ridiculous statement! LOFL and RTFO at the same time!

      • East Asia – I constantly hear stories from friends and former colleagues flying in China, Korea and Japan. Nepotism, fake licences, and complete breakdown of CRM principles because you aren’t from the same ethnic group as the guy sat next to you. It’s an issue in the left and right seat.

      • I think he’s referring to South Africa.

        I’m not South African, but I have spent some time there. While I was there I did notice that it appeared that white males were absent from the SAA cadet programme. Whether that was reflected across the rest of the industry I can’t say, though there was certainly a belief that it was amongst whites.

        • Yup, SAA doesn’t take on white South African males in their cadet program at first . Im white South African and wanted to be a pilot since I was 4 years old (Im 33 now). Before you apply they tell you they first comply with our B.E.E (Black Employment Equity act) before taking on non-B.E.E candidates. By the time they finish the selection for the candidates, there is no placed left for others. That of course is due to a lack funding to the program. If it changed since I checked in 2016 please correct me.

          Any ways I’m not going to let this keep me from doing my dream career. In fact due to my circumstances, I dont mind working my a** of to get there and Im willing to take what the airlines offers me. Im not in the airline industry (36 odd hours) but so far no negative from anyone I know in the industry.

          • Guys, please do not wallow with your pathetic nonsense about white pilots not getting jobs in South Africa. The whole world knows that SA under the apartheid regime only favoured white men and marginalised the rest of its citizens based on colour. To this very day, South African Airways has 789 white pilots compared to only 200 pilots of colour.The airline is now trying to address the imbalance by giving the previously disadvantaged groups an opportunity to finally, fulifill their dreams and you people are moaning. Besides, you know that the rest of the country’s airlines: Comair, Safair, Airlink, CemAir etc, which are owned by white people, are only employing white people and not others. Get a life, please and tell the world the truth instead of spreading self-pity lies. Good day.

          • Thank you for your contribution.

  5. Very few pilot employers (if any offer) understand that pilots want LIFE STYLE OPTIONS. As a pilot ages he may (if he has planed his financial affairs properly) want to work less …. Say month on month of or limit the hours flew not to 45 flight hours per month. Most contracts require a pilot to spend 75+% of his time away from his family, flying countless hours, living in a country with a very alien couture to his own. This real world situation just makes the experienced pilots want to retire early. Offer more flexible employment contracts (look at Sweden for its attitude to the number of working hours per week) and adapt this attitude to the pilot workforce. Pilots are not just a nessasary evil that must be worked into the ground (not literally!). OK less work would = less pay ….. But more pilots would be willing to remain in the industry rather than leave as soon as they can afford it.

  6. The all industry is blindfolded by greed. Airlines want to freeze salaries,with increased flying hour and duty periods. There are some solutions, increase again the retirement age, increase salaries, commuting jobs to make it attractive for pilots all over the world, easing of the EASA , FAA rules on license validations and leave it to the companies to decide which candidates have the required level of experties and airmanship to operate their aircraft. The Middle East carriers accept any ICAO license, In China/ Far East as well , the only limit is age, 56 . There are plenty of pilots over 60, around , that would fly with the right salary and conditions

  7. The profiteering is killing the professional crew, they are being reduced to mere puppets in the hands of governments and big business houses, little do they realise that like a doctor is to medicine, a pilot is to planes.
    So if they don’t mend their ways the better suitors will take away the bride !!!!
    Leave on demand , regular reasonable pay hikes and better licence insurance are the key ingredients.
    Not to forget non erratic scheduling of pilot rosters.
    Nice article, but I am not sure how the Indian Aviation is going to take this article? With a pinch of salt, or its regular arrogance .
    I loved the statement “PILOT THE NUCLEUS OF ANY AIRLINE” . Wow

    • Thank you very much. Do you have anything else to add to the debate? We want to give pilots a platform to express their grievances. Unhappy pilots is a big aviation news story that needs following closely.

  8. As the wife of a cargo pilot, I’ve seen his job conditions go from bad to worse. He loves the flying but the job is eating us alive. I hate his job and can’t wait for him to retire although of course he doesn’t get any retirement. Bonues! That has never happened. The airline always juggles the numbers an d figures out that it hasn’t made the appropriate profit around bonus time.
    He’s gone over 3 weeks each month. If we weren’t in this marriage for the long haul, it never would have survived. Couldn’t recommend to anyone male or female to marry a cargo pilot unless you live living alone.

    • Thank you very much for your frank, honest and personal account of the challenges you and your husband face because of his profession.


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