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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

All in the air

by New Worker correspondent

AVIATION is one of Britain’s major industries. It is difficult to be sure just how many are employed in it. The Air League claims that “aviation and aerospace directly employ and support over 250,000 people in UK jobs”. Of these, about 158,000 are directly employed by airports and ground services. The GMB recently put the figure at 300,000. Whether or not this includes all of the people working for private contractors at airports is unclear, but in any case, it is an important industry and aviation was particularly badly hit by the coronavirus plague and was almost completely closed down at the start.

The Air League says that job losses have amounted to over 26,000 in airline companies alone. As readers of these pages know, there have been many attempts by the outsourced companies at privatised airports to take advantage of the pandemic to reduce the already low wages of baggage handlers and cleaners. Those providing catering at the numerous catering chains based in airports have seen their jobs vanish.

Now that senior bosses have discovered the existence of the Zoom and Microsoft Teams platforms, they will be less likely to permit middle managers to spend a week flying across the Atlantic for meetings when they can do the same work in a morning from home. Highly profitable business travel is likely to be greatly reduced. This might please the Green lobby, but it come at a cost in terms of jobs.

The strength of trade unionism in the industry is very mixed. Pilots have their own union, the very effective British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA). It was established in 1937 when Eric Lane‑Burslem, a pilot with Imperial Airways, had a narrow escape when all four engines of his iced-up biplane cut out at 9,000 feet. This, not unnaturally, got him thinking about the safety of flying.

The relieved pilot called a meeting at a Croydon hotel (near what was then Britain’s main airport), which saw 400 equally worried pilots turn out to establish BALPA on the 27th June that year.

No revolutionary, Lane‑Burslem made sure that the first president and vice presidents of the union were two peers, Lords Chesham and Amhers respectively, to ensure that BALPA had a voice in Parliament.

It is no accident that safety was the major reason behind the formation of BALPA. While there have been pay disputes, particularly in budget airlines, pilots’ wages have never been peanuts. These include Ryanair and easyJet airlines, which appeal to customers with low fares and owe part of their success to paying comparatively low wages.


When pilots are involved in pay disputes BALPA tends to talk about percentages and other issues rather mention the actual sums involved, so that even the most ardent lefties do not lose interest in their cause. Until recently the union could be embarrassed by ex-RAF types saying their flights over Berlin and Hamburg never earned them a fraction of what civilian pilots earn.

Essential Flight Time Limitations, which see pilots frequently staying at hotels for weekends of rest in foreign counties, tends not to earn them public sympathy either. That is essential however, as pilot fatigue is the main source of accidents Some employers are seeking to water down the presently strict rules. The cheaper airlines that depend heavily on seasonal traffic are eager to impose casualisation on the industry. Were that to come to pass, it would soon become the norm.

Whatever problems pilots have, they are true aristocrats of labour compared with many other essential workers in the industry where pay and conditions are very different. BALPA had an early success when it secured an occupational pension for its members.


Pensions are a still particular priority for pilots. At present they do not have to retire until 65. That leaves a gap until men can claim a state pension and its one which will grow. They also face very having to pass stringent health checks that can see the sudden end of their careers for minor issues that for most jobs would be non-problems.

Since the end of the Second World War aviation has been an expanding industry. Foreign travel has become increasing popular. Few working-class families could resist the temptation of cheap sunshine and chips on General Franco’s beaches in the 1960s, which was a blessing compared with a week in a Blackpool boarding house waiting for the rain to stop. In tough times all sorts of household economies are made before the annual fortnight in the sun, more often further afield in Florida and Turkey, is sacrificed. Therefore airline companies, when seeking highly skilled operatives, have to be generous.

BALPA represents about 75 per cent of Britain’s pilots and claims a membership of 10,000 and is widely recognised by airlines. Members have to hold a pilot’s licence, but it includes trainee and retired pilots and flight engineers. Flying is still largely a boy’s game. The percentage of women pilots in Britain is only 4.7 per cent. In India it is 12.5 per cent.


As might be expected, BALPA is very keen on people flying to their holidays, so it annoys the Greens by saying that Air Passenger Duty is too high and allies its self with its bosses and hotel chains to argue for a reduction on a tax on holidays.

BALPA, which has long been affiliated to the TUC, was the training ground for one of its officials who went on to be an Employment Secretary who wrought important changes in trade union and labour law. Unfortunately that was airline pilot Norman Tebbit in Margaret Thatcher’s 1979–83 Government, who introduce laws against the closed shop.

This week unions involved in aviation welcomed plans to make international travel easier, after the Transport Secretary announced loosening COVID‑19 regulations.

TSSA General Secretary (whose members sell air as well as rail tickets) Manuel Cortes said: “We must get travel going again if we are to have a travel trade at the end of this pandemic. Our high street travel trade has taken an unprecedented battering with far too many jobs lost and businesses going to the wall,” and BALPA’s Martin Chalk added: “We welcome the changes, that we called for multiple times, as a first step to removing the shackles that have constrained aviation this summer. But there is still a way to go before UK aviation can truly take-off again and the industry remains precariously placed after a dire summer season.”


GMB national officer Nadine Houghton also welcomed lifting the restrictions but added: “Government policy is killing the industry; they need to respond. We need urgent sector specific support as we head in to winter. Without it we risk up to 30,000 lost jobs and the death of the aviation industry as we know it.”

Over a fortnight ago BALPA complained that: “Pilots who’ve faced huge pay cuts to help Ryanair though the COVID crisis are asking why they’ve been overlooked when it comes to the airline’s recovery.” They deplored the fact that: “Pilots at East Midlands Airport have been told they’ll be taking a 70 per cent reduction in pay this winter” when the CEO boasted of a very strong recovery, complaining that: “These pilots have already agreed to a 20 per cent reduction in pay over the last 18 months.”

Martin Chalk, BALPA’s Acting General Secretary, said: “Many pilots have had to get second jobs or use life savings to survive. This feels like it has gone unnoticed by Ryanair management who appear to have zero concern for the wellbeing of their pilots. The prolonged stress caused by this inaction by Ryanair could have long term effects.”

You don’t hear this sort of talk about getting back to normal from the teaching unions.

Further down the food chain are the air stewards and stewardesses. Their trade union history is more colourful. Like flying, the job has a certain glamour that attracts many eager recruits.

The lure of foreign travel that comes with the job can quickly wear after stays at a few identical hotels with views of airport fuel tanks, and once the first flush of youth vanishes bosses tend to find ways of easing them out in favour of more those with more youthful glamour, which seems to be an essential qualification for the job.

They have a dedicated union, the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA), now a branch of Unite, which has taken industrial action over wages and other issues. It has about 8,000 members, mostly but not exclusively with British Airways.

BASSA has recently found itself in the courts and was forced to pay a member £56,176 in damages after it launched a smear campaign against her for having the impertinence of asking why the union’s annual accounts reported that £523,940 had been spent under the vague heading of “sundries” and was refused an adequate explanation.