Aviation: EESC discusses Commission's report on social rights of aircrews

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) hosted a debate in response to the Commission's initiative on the social agenda in air transport. EESC members and stakeholders of the aviation sector came together at the March meeting of the Section for Transport, Energy, Infrastructure and the Information Society (TEN) to assess its implications from the perspective of civil society.

The European Commission continues to push for higher social standards in aviation and published an unprecedented document on 1 March 2019, highlighting the main challenges pilots and cabin crews in the EU face today. Maintaining and promoting high social standards is a top priority for the EU’s Aviation Strategy and the joint Bulc-Thyssen proposal sets out a series of measures to further strengthen the social agenda in air transport.

The report identifies a number of important trends:

  • The growth of the EU's internal aviation market. In 2017, 1 billion passengers travelled by air within, from or to the EU. Broadly speaking, approximately 9.4 million jobs are supported by the aviation sector.
  • The growth of the global aviation market. The demand for pilots is expected to increase substantially. On top of the existing stock, it is estimated that half a million pilots will be needed in the next 20 years for the global aviation market.
  • The emergence of new players on the scene, in particular low-cost carriers, which account for nearly half of the EU market.

In recent years, some airlines have introduced atypical or non-standard forms of employment. While the predominant type remains direct and permanent employment, between 9% and 19% of cabin crews as well as 8% of pilots are employed through some form of intermediary organisation, and this is concentrated in the low-cost segment. There is concern about downward pressure on working conditions and this has weakened the legal certainty on the current safeguards of European legislation.

This report is timely, the president of the TEN section, Pierre Jean Coulon declared. At the EESC we have been working for years on the topic of a socially fair aviation industry. Sustainability is very important. We need an ongoing balance between economic, environmental and social factors. When one of these elements outweighs the others, there is a lack of equilibrium that can lead to a fairly chaotic situation, he concluded.

EESC member Thomas Kropp pointed out that it was vital to keep showing the advantages of the single market to people, but at the same time also emphasising the challenges for the future, especially in terms of critical infrastructure and industrial policy. Pointing to ongoing negotiations of international aviation agreements, in particular with partners with lower social, environmental and consumer protection standards, he stated that the main question was whether we wanted to be able, in the future, to determine our aviation policies or to leave them to other players.

The paper clarifies how the existing EU legislative framework protects certain values, the objective being to ensure clear, fair and enforceable rules, Jonathan Stabenow from Commissioner Thyssen's Cabinet said, noting that the rules on posting workers were not applied enough in the aviation sector and that, as a case in point, most cases of self-employment were unlikely to genuinely qualify as such.

Hans Ollongren, representing the Airline Coordination Platform (ACP), offered the industry's point of view, highlighting that it had never been cheaper to fly and that the aviation industry had become extremely efficient, but affordable mobility should not be the result of unfair competition, where rules were disrespected or tweaked in various ways. It is therefore essential to ensure that airlines that respect rules are not penalised.

The trade unions' perspective was showcased by François Ballestero, from the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF), who indicated that the report was incomplete as it did not deal with the forms of contract that were increasingly being used for aircrews: temporary assignments which actually correspond to permanent jobs. The principle of equality of treatment should always be respected, he maintained, making clear that he was against social dumping in aviation.

On the consumers' side was EESC member Evangelia Kekeleki, who stressed that passengers shared the concerns and reservations of the workers. Users welcome cheap fares but this does not mean agreeing to the infringement of workers' rights or of environmental regulations. A certification mechanism at European level could help consumers understand whether certain social and environmental standards are upheld.

Finally, Rosella Marasco, representing the European Cockpit Association (ECA), underlined that the report did not completely meet expectations because it lacked concrete actions. However, it was important to note that the Commission had acknowledged, for the first time, that the Social Pillar also applied to aviation: there are rules and they apply to aircrews too, without exception.