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85 years of BALPA protecting the piloting profession and keeping flights safe.

by Martin Chalk BALPA General Secretary

On the agenda of the newly formed British Airline Pilots’ Association’s first meeting in 1937 was fatigue. Pilots being asked to fly for longer than was possible without compromising safety, is still a topic BALPA addresses regularly. We have certainly made progress – since those days, there is now:

  • a responsibility written into law, on both pilot and airline, to prevent fatigue;
  • on the airline to have both a ruleset and a monitoring system to prevent fatigue and
  • on the regulator to ensure airlines and licence holders follow the above restrictions.

So why is it that fatigue still regularly tops of the list of members’ concerns? I believe this is down to the challenges of our role – both a tremendously professional leadership position which delivers on a complex and ever-changing set of challenges – as well as an hourly paid job where each pilot can be replaced by the next without loss of continuity, just like production line or call centre staff. Airlines all say safety is their overriding priority, but if it was, we wouldn’t need to be constantly reinforcing the requirement to follow both the spirit and the letter of safety regulation.

In 85 years, BALPA has developed a dual personality to cope with this contradiction. A respected flight safety department, with deep and broad expertise which advocates to keep the civil air transport system’s enviable safety record on an ever-improving trajectory, working (mostly) hand-in-glove with an industrial relations department which negotiates a fair reward for a skilled and responsible profession.

During COVID, the benefits of being a member of a trade union have become even more stark. Without BALPA, thousands more of our colleagues would have been made redundant, terms and conditions would have been slashed for thousands more and recovery would have been even more difficult than it is. That is not to say we could save every job – but we did support our less fortunate colleagues with contact, training and alternative career support. We pulled together as a pilot community to support each other and be the voice of pilots through campaigns like the #TravelDayOfAction and Furlough campaign. Some colleagues also suffered longer and deeper cuts than have been justified by the pandemic, and only through BALPA membership and engagement will there be any chance of recovering those to where they should be.

In the last few years, as we occupy the role of the ‘conscience’ of the industry, safety has been joined by sustainability as the subject for which the industry needs to develop a more effective ‘conscience’. Financial sustainability has been watched closely by shareholders since before Orville and Wilbur, but BALPA is also insisting that social and environmental sustainability are addressed with a similar level of seriousness as safety. All four will be necessary for the long-term viability of our industry.

Despite the extraordinary feat of making the transport by air of billions of people and goods safe, mundane and everyday; reuniting families, fostering cultural understanding and underpinning business in our ever-shrinking world; there is still an enormous amount of work to do – protecting our members from the odd ‘time travelling’ 19th century mill owner now apparently masquerading as 21st century airline CEOs! But 85 years from its first meeting, BALPA is here doing just that.