High price for aspiring pilots to pay for commercial airline grade


BACKGROUND:Self-sponsored pilot trainees often spend €150,000 on training fees and living expenses, writes GERRY BYRNE

WHEN A college chum got a job as an Aer Lingus cadet some 40 years ago we celebrated as if he had won the lottery.

He was immediately put on the payroll and sent to Florida for training, all at the airline’s expense. Even his accommodation was paid for. The airline gave him further training on its own jets. He rose to the rank of captain and were he still with the airline he would be earning more than €100,000 a year in addition to generous travel perks plus an attractive pension scheme.

The young Irish pilot trainees stranded in Florida because of a dispute over the payment of fees cannot automatically expect the same, even if they manage to complete their training.

They include several young people who are so enamoured of the prospect of an airline career that they, or their families, have forked out the cost themselves. Fees and accommodation in Florida amount to about €80,000 per person.

Some, undoubtedly, were unlucky in their applications to join the cadet programmes of established airlines like Aer Lingus.

A total of 2,000 aspiring pilots applied for a cadetship last January, the first time in 20 years the airline recruited in such a fashion. Only 20 places were on offer for a Spanish-based training course followed by further training in Dublin.

Other leading European airlines also offer similar programmes, all of which are oversubscribed. Not only are there no fees to be paid, but the trainees receive salaries from these airlines.

Ryanair, on the other hand, will recruit fresh graduates from training colleges – indeed, most of the stranded trainees probably had this airline earmarked for a job application.

But there is no guarantee they would have made the Ryanair grade. And even if they were accepted, they would face further costs, with the company seeking a further fee, upwards of €30,000, to be trained to fly its Boeing 737-800 aircraft.

While training, over a period of several months, they would receive very little pay. The Irish Airline Pilots Association president, Capt Evan Cullen, said yesterday that his members had encountered such trainees sleeping in their cars at airports because they could not afford accommodation.

In fact, many self-sponsored pilot trainees have to spend upwards of €150,000 on training fees and living expenses while earning hardly a penny in order to make the commercial airline grade.

Others who take the self-funded route, but who fail to secure a deal with any of the low-cost carriers, will attempt to start at the bottom and seek jobs with small commuter airlines.

Pay rates in such airlines are often modest. Trainees will work for nothing and rates are often less than €10,000 a year for a qualified co-pilot. Even captains will be lucky to earn €30,000 a year in some instances.

A US congressional inquiry into a fatal commuter airline crash at Buffalo, New York in 2009 revealed that the captain earned just €54,000 and the co-pilot less than €20,000. Neither could afford a hotel room and slept on chairs the night before the crash, in which 50 died. Fatigue was blamed as a contributory cause.

Assuming that the self-sponsored trainees are lucky enough to land a job with Ryanair, their future is not cut and dried. Most will never work directly for the airline, but be employed as freelances via a series of subcontracting companies. They must form a limited company with two others and look after their own pension, taxation and social welfare arrangements. By agreeing to work “off the books”, they sign away their rights as employees. There is no guaranteed minimum income and they have no right of redress if they are dismissed or given no work.

They are paid by the flying hour – not the total time they spend at work. If their aircraft is delayed by fog or mechanical problems they must remain on duty, but unpaid.

The Irish Airline Pilots Association has commissioned a legal opinion into this type of service contract. It also warns that the freelance pilots’ company, and not necessarily the airline, may be sued by passengers injured in a crash.