Ben Sandiland’s report (Friday, item 1) on pilot fatigue and mooted changes to restrictions on commercial flying hours has elicited a strong response from a couple of concerned pilots: 

Pilot 1: Your article on pilots flying hours is very timely. It has been an issue in the industry since I can remember. However, by the response of others there are few points I would like to clarify. Firstly 900 hours is the number of hours with the engines running. It does not include pre-flight preparation, turn-arounds between flights, training or the myriad of other things involved with getting off the ground. Most pilots will in fact work very close to a 40 hour week, if not more. The other thing is that the environment in which we work is very dry, suffers from vibration and noise. Added to that is the effect of shift work which can vary from late nights to early mornings in a very short period of time. This, of course, doesn’t include the effects of time zone changes which are far more extreme than most travellers ever experience and more frequent.

The perception in the media and amongst the general public is that computers do most of the work for us. It is obvious that they have no idea of what they are talking about. It is the decision-making process of the pilots that keeps the aeroplane safe not the computers. They are very basic computers by today’s standards. Fatigue is one of the most insidious threats to aviation safety. One that is very difficult to measure and is thought to be a contributing factor in many accidents. The problem is the people running the airlines these days have about as much experience as Joe Public and hold the same ill-informed view. You don’t have to dig too deep to get a plethora of information on the subject. Unfortunately, sensationalism seems to have won out. Just enough to get the headline.

Pilot 2: Ben Sandiland’s article on airline pilots’ duty times and pilot shortages struck a chord with me. Frankly, I think the airlines (and other aviation employers) are as responsible as anyone, as well as CASA, in creating the situation resulting in a pilot shortage. Aviation employers have been jacking up the requirements and costs to prospective career pilots for years, making the selection criteria for pilots impossible to achieve, except for only the very, very determined or (usually also) the very, very rich.

If you want to be an airline pilot, even if you have the talent and work hard, you must achieve (at your own cost) not only a private pilot’s licence, then a commercial pilot’s licence, but then usually an instructor’s rating (and experience training students, whilst gaining a rate of pay often at poverty line levels — instructors are often treated as part-time employees in the books of their employers despite it being a full-time job) followed by an airline transport pilot’s licence, and usually a command instrument rating and multiple engine ratings as well, then somehow get thousands of flying hours under your belt before presenting yourself with job application in hand, and do it all by your mid-to-late twenties otherwise the airlines consider you “too old” because they want the maximum out their “investment” in any training you get with them before you retire!

Now, if you can get yourself to this level without having spent more than $100,000+ out of your own pocket (forgetting about any lost earning ability you could have had instead in an industry where you were better appreciated) I’d be very surprised. Just getting to a very basic commercial licence stage within the bare minimum time required (which happens rarely) — costs about $40,000 before even trying for the instructors rating, ATPL, instrument rating, etc and getting the flying hours required in experience as well before most employers will touch you — where does a 20-year-old fresh out of high school get the money for that?

Banks don’t lend you money for getting pilots’ licences — they can’t use your qualifications as collateral and consider you a bad investment. Unless you have a rich mum & dad, or you are willing to work multiple pub jobs etc overnight while you are working a full-time job at a flying school (in itself a practice which would make you sleep-deprived) while being paid part-time wages less than a secretary could earn, and are willing to forget any ideas of buying your own home, settling down or (in many cases) having a family (unless your partner is very understanding, and often long-suffering) or willing to sacrifice any of the things you would be able to afford with almost any other job, you haven’t got a chance.

As a result, students drop out of aviation after doing some initial training, or opt to do other things — even getting a doctor’s degree at a university with its outrageous Hecs fees is cheaper than becoming a pilot — and you get paid and treated better — yet you still have people’s lives in your hands. It is surprising a pilot shortage hasn’t occurred much earlier.

A prime example I heard of recently was from one of my ex-instructors (flying schools have a high rate of staff turnover) who had worked as an instructor in Melbourne while gaining his ratings, then travelled around the country for several years on different jobs taking his wife with him housed in short-term rental accommodation. They don’t have children — they simply can’t afford to and aren’t sure they wished to introduce them to such a life anyway. Having gotten back to Melbourne on another job again, he got a phone call and was offered an opportunity with a subsidiary of one of Australia’s major airlines.

The catch? He had to present himself on Monday with a $10,000 cheque to pay to his new “employer” for his type training (i.e. familiarisation training for the aircraft he was to fly) and attend that training, unpaid, for several weeks until he finished said training and would only then be told if he would get a spot with them or not. Having worked for years for the opportunity, he could not afford to quit his existing job for a job “prospect” only, and pay the fee, nor work unpaid for several weeks while the rent went unpaid — so he declined.

Clearly airlines invest as little as possible in the training of future pilots, preferring to offset as much of those costs as possible to the pilots themselves. Can you imagine this policy being implemented in any other professional industry? A second instructor I know who is working his way up, has moved his family of wife and three school-aged children across the country between Victoria, QLD, NT and WA on successive jobs no less than four times in the past three years to ensure his career path.

No wonder the divorce rate among pilots is high. The costs of a career in this industry are more than monetary. A third (female) instructor I know (now they really have to work very hard to get recognised) has been refused a home loan from her bank because neither she nor her husband, also originally from the aviation industry, earn enough money to service it — and have no loan history to help them in their cause, either. This demonstrates to me how highly valued the skills of a pilot are in the aviation industry when a well-qualified instructor is not paid enough to get a home loan, which (no insult to the pilot) many half-qualified plebs in an office job could qualify for.

This career really is a lifestyle choice. None of these people has enjoyed the standard of living of other professionals, simply because of the demands required by aviation employers in working their way up. CASA has additionally jacked up training requirements over time inadvertently making it harder to get into the industry. In addition, the bureaucracy required in running an aviation business has increased over time, pushing costs up in an industry of already rising costs.

As for me it doesn’t matter really — I got my licence when I could afford to and in my late thirties I am considered too old to be employable anyway — Oh, and even if I were, I’d have to work for less than half the money I get paid in my current (non-aviation) job and bankrupt my family doing it. So, of course, there is a pilot shortage — under these conditions, why would you bother joining the industry at all? Just remember –when it comes to cutting costs and aviation — you get what you pay for!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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