Post 9/11 there was a sudden and dramatic fall in passenger numbers and the aviation industry had to do something to keep itself going so, it dropped prices. Then came growth in the number of low cost operators, initially on short haul, but over time increasingly moving into the long-haul business. Costs were being ruthlessly driven down by competition with little regard to long term viability.
Passenger numbers eventually began to rise as people realised that flights were cheap and represented excellent value for money but then came the economic downturn of 2008, and the pressure was back on. Every carrier was wrestling with the problem of how to keep existing customers, attract new ones and deliver profits for their shareholders. The market was fragile with little or no easy way to increase profit margins so companies looked internally as to where savings could be found. New aircraft could operate at lower costs but cost more to buy or lease, charging for sandwiches and drinks became fashionable but it wasn’t enough to feed the high baseline costs of operating an airline.
Attention eventually turned to staff costs and there the industry saw that savings could be made as pilots were still enthusiastic to fly. The young and inexperienced would have to pay for all their training and even type ratings. New pilots were quickly burdened with massive debt to get their full ATPL and often had to turn to the bank of mum and dad to get them into the cockpit.
The government then set a two-year period before anyone could access an Employment Tribunal and even tried to make claimants (who by then would often have been unemployed) pay to take their case to court! Things just seemed to go from bad to worse for pilots. Housing costs continued to increase, most could not afford to buy, and even renting near to your place of work became very expensive.
You might have been forgiven for thinking things could not get any worse but they did. Someone came up with the idea of the Gig economy. You only get paid for the hours you work at the lowest possible rate and without being a directly employed employee. You were engaged as a contractor with no employment rights and little or nothing that you could apparently do to improve your situation.
Over time the economy slowly grew again and passenger numbers went up but by now the race to the bottom was well and truly on, and most airlines were bumping along the bottom driving down costs by directly impacting the wages and working conditions of staff.
Eventually, something had to give and that was and still is a shortage of skilled pilots, a lack of new pilots entering the industry because of cost, and pilots leaving the least attractive employers for the ones with better terms and conditions of employment.
Problems have now hit Ryanair and it cannot fly all the routes it offered to customers and had to cancel numerous flights causing upset for many of its loyal customers. Has anyone in a senior position been affected by this? (since writing this the COO has resigned) It seems not. Have the aviation authorities started to investigate the operational viability of the licenced carriers? Not that we know of. Is anyone responsible? Apparently not, it’s just economics dear boy! This is not over yet and until someone looks at the aviation industry with a critical strategic eye I cannot say that I think it will get better.