Passengers flying over the busy Christmas period should spare a thought for those in the cockpit. A growing number are “contract pilots” employed by third parties and needing to work second jobs to make ends meet or face financial ruin.

Trainee pilots now have to incur personal debts of over £120,000 to get the necessary commercial pilot’s licence to sit at the controls of a big jet as a junior co-pilot.

At this time of year, they can then find themselves taking home just £800 to £1,000 per month while having to service debt repayments of £1,200.  Even when more work is available these contract pilots, paid per flying hour, can earn an annual salary of just £18,000 before considering debt repayments.

In a recent questionnaire one pilot said: ‘Many pilots are going through extreme financial hardships, racking up thousands of pounds on credit cards just to be able to survive winter.’

The problems for new pilots do not stop there.

There is no sick pay, meaning cash-strapped pilots turn up to work when they should not. This has resulted in a growing number of examples where the Captain either has to off-load their co-pilot knowing he or she will not then get paid, or accept they are flying with an unwell colleague.

New pilots can be shunted across Europe and be based almost anywhere and this is all at their own cost. There is no pension; these pilots have to buy their own uniforms; some are compelled to set up their own businesses and register off-shore if they want work.

All this impacts passengers too.  In a recent LRD analysis of these trends it was noted that ‘The absence of job security and a predictable wage is very troubling, especially when combined with the high levels of debt being carried by these young trainees. There are psycho-social risks within this kind of employment structure, such as fear, anxiety and stress, and there is a risk of these impacting on performance.’

This is why the Civil Aviation Authority has rules which are supposed to limit the use of contract pilots, yet there are airlines where a majority of first officers are employed on such contracts.

Jim McAuslan, BALPA General Secretary, said, ‘Given the reality of being a new pilot in this day and age, it is hardly surprising that whilst 95% of pilots in a ComRes poll said they were proud to be a pilot, only 58% would recommend it as a career. And that figure is in free fall which will inevitably fuel the looming crisis of a pilot shortage. It is typical business short termism.

‘BALPA is campaigning to arrest this downward trend. In some airlines we have negotiated successful schemes for new pilots. In easyJet we are actively campaigning for a change of approach by the management and are trying to secure an acceptable new contract. And just this week in Ryanair, which also makes extensive use of contract pilots, 99% of pilots have voted to support a new pilot body to represent all pilots, including contract pilots.’

Jim McAuslan concluded: ‘Like our campaign on unsafe European laws on pilot fatigue this is an area where we have the travelling public firmly in mind. Our mission as a professional association is to “make every flight a safe flight” and we ask for the public’s support in pursuing this goal.’