A Virgin Blue captain writes:

Ok, about Virgin Pilots going sick catching colds etc… (Thursday, item 3),  I’m a Virgin Blue captain and can tell you for the record as a group we don’t want to stuff around the public as they are not to blame for your conditions. We are, however, responsible for public safety and it is something we hold in the highest regard.

Pilots going sick are only doing so due to fatigue due to arduous rosters or family stresses caused by being given unreasonable rosters. We are being rostered up to a maximum of 30 hours flying a week which would be equivalent to a 50-hour week of shift work away and spending time away from home.

Add to that working in a dehydrated, high-cabin-altitude environment (imagine going up and working up Mount Kosiousko each day for work) and shift work that can have us signing on for work at 2am and finishing at 12pm, or signing on at 4am. Also take into account being away from home 14 days a month and you might get an idea of why some people are taking sick days.

We have a responsibility for public safety, even if our management don’t give much regard to it. So painting us as taking mysterious colds is very inaccurate, we are going fatigued, which is perfectly legal and the most responsible thing to do regarding public safety.

It would in fact be illegal to sign on for work in an unfit state. We would appreciate if you could set that record straight. The rest of your article was, however, quite accurate, especially the part about morale. It’s at an all-time low, the lowest I’ve ever seen at an airline.

Another concerned pilot writes:

I refer to the article dated 12 April by Ben Sandilands, about Virgin Blue, and wish to comment on it. As a pilot within the Virgin Blue group I feel vulnerable to discrimination should my identity be known to the company, therefore I wish to remain anonymous. I hope this does not prejudice the facts I would like to introduce to this topic.

Firstly, I wish to state that the article is correct in the issues it raises, but in omitting some important facts it leaves the reader with the impression that pilots are going “sick” to leverage their argument (for more pay) and leave people stranded. This is far from the truth.

For some time now this company has been operating its fleet with a fewer than optimum number of pilots. In the past 12 months at least 25 pilots have left the company for various reasons, and have not been replaced. This is because the greater efficiencies afforded by the new work rules (in the proposed EBA) were expected to make “new hires” unnecessary. As we know this has so far not been adopted.

Once the EBA was rejected a reassessment was made and the company now believes it will be nearly 100 captains short this year! Total pilot complement at VB is 560. This represents a massive strain on resources for several reasons:

i) as each co-pilot is trained he is removed from normal line flying, reducing the number of crews left to operate the schedule.

ii) as each co-pilot is upgraded to captain, his own co-pilot position must be filled by an external applicant, therefore 200 people actually require training!

iii) simulator space is at a premium and very difficult to obtain. iv) due to the world wide shortage of pilots there will continue to be a number of pilots leaving this company in the course of the year.

In the context of the above situation it is rather glib to suggest that pilots “taking sick” is the cause for cancelations. Flight-crew fatigue is now being recognised world-wide as an emerging safety concern, particularly amongst low-cost airlines. No pilot should present for duty if he feels unable to carry out his duties to his best ability, and no sensible passenger would wish him to. The rate of sick leave has risen in VB over the last two years, commensurate with steadily rising workload. The EBA was rejected because the perception amongst pilots was that a 3% pay rise did not reflect the 13% productivity increase being asked of them.

I hope this clarifies the situation for Mr Sandilands and trust any further writing on this matter will bear this in mind.

Virgin Blue responds:

We are currently in the midst of EBA negotiations with our pilots and we are discussing numerous details regarding remuneration/work/lifestyle balance and productivity with our pilots representatives and the pilots’ union.

We are not discussing those details in any other forums except to say that clearly there are strict regulations in place across the entire aviation industry regarding the management of duty hours and like all airlines, Virgin Blue complies with those regulations.

Peter Fray

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