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Supporting the North Sea pilot community

by Mick Brade BALPA National Officer

It’s been an extremely tough few years for offshore helicopter firms in the North Sea. The downturn in the oil and gas industry has hit the local economy hard and the knock-on effect has been redundancies at both CHC Helicopters and Bristow Helicopters.

For those facing the news that their jobs are on the line it’s been a personal tragedy. But the helicopter community, supported by the wider BALPA family of pilots, has rallied round to support those who face such dire news.

BALPA is well placed to offer support to those who face redundancy. Our industrial team and Company Councils (CCs) are always prepared to negotiate with companies on your behalf. We have access to legal experts to offer advice and help us navigate the legal technicalities of redundancy as well as our membership and careers service that’s is there to support members who face a change in their job.

And BALPA is also aware of the unique challenges helicopter pilots face in these areas. We understand that finding alternative helicopter jobs out there is extremely tough. We understand the challenges rotary pilots face and the need in many cases to retrain as fixed wing pilots.

The latest round of cutbacks earlier this year affected pilots at Bristow Helicopters. The company made an announcement that they are to make a total of 12 pilots redundant. Eight from Scatsta and four from Norwich.

This came as no big surprise to me or the Company Council. In fact, I think it’s fair to say we expected them to announce many more than 12. That said, I suspect that this is the thin edge of a much bigger wedge and further cutbacks are likely, which may well see the company try and savage the terms and conditions of employment for pilots.

Rest assured that we will be resisting any such attempts in strong terms. We enjoy a very high level of support from a united group of members. We have had offers of help from quite a few former CC members who still work for Bristow and we are of course harnessing all that support during this very difficult time.


Because we suspected this announcement was coming, we were able to put in place some dedicated legal support in advance. We were allocated a named solicitor who is based in Scotland and who has considerable experience when it comes to dealing with the helicopter sector and our members.

We were able to respond to the announcement immediately by putting a negotiating subcommittee of the CC together which is being led by myself as the National Officer, closely supported by the CC Chair and Vice Chair. All members of the Bristow CC are playing a very vital role whether that be up front or behind the scenes.

To support our work, we have recruited a base rep at Scatsta. This is not a Company Council member but is a BALPA volunteer at a base where we do not have a formal CC rep. The base rep acts as a first point of contact for our members there. They are ideally positioned to disseminate information to members, pick up on what is going on at that base and feed information back to the CC. All in all, communications are much quicker and much more efficient.

We immediately secured a fair degree of cooperation from the Bristow senior management team up in Aberdeen who have committed to consult with us formally, properly and professionally. So far, they are sticking true to their word. That’s not to say that we always agree with every word they say, far from it. The company are so far in dialogue with us almost daily by email and phone. We have been having weekly formal face to face meetings with managers.

Communicating with members has been a priority and we have held several face to face meetings at different bases. We have also been issuing members newsletters with increasing frequency to ensure everyone is kept informed of developments.

At Bristow we are very lucky in that the CC members know each member personally and I am on first name terms with almost all our members. This intimate knowledge of our membership base comes in very handy even in unfortunate circumstances such as right now. We can communicate almost immediately with members whether that be by newsletter, SMS text messages or word of mouth.

Our absolute priority at this point is to mitigate the 12 proposed compulsory redundancies down to zero compulsory redundancies.

We are engaged in formal talks with the company about:

1.    Negotiating an enhanced voluntary redundancy package.
2.    Part time working initiatives.

It is far too early to go into precise details, but it would be fair comment to say that at this stage we have some confidence that we will be able to achieve our goal of zero compulsory redundancies this time around. There is still a long way for us to go and some of that journey will no doubt be very difficult indeed.

There is absolutely no doubt that our members are desperately worried about what the future may or may not hold for them. I am as proud as can be at the way in which the Bristow CC has set its stall out to deal with yet another catastrophic announcement. I never cease to be amazed at the amount of sheer hard work and dedication that our CC members are prepared to put in to try and protect their members from the devastating effects of redundancy.