Flying Blind

pic by Mark Harkin

“One day I’m going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember.”

In a couple of weeks, hubby and I will be climbing onto planes to fly to Tokyo. I’m a nervous flyer at the best of times – though far less than I used to be – so the recent deliberate downing of a Germanwings plane by its co-pilot is very much on my mind.

Him, and the British Airways pilot who killed his wife and planned to crash his jet (he changed his mind and called in sick at the last minute). He said:  

“I didn’t want to be another husband who kills his wife and then himself and nobody cares. I thought if I got to work I could crash an aircraft, or fly to Lagos and crash it there. I wanted to make a statement.”

He was said to be under extreme stress due to his marital breakdown.

It seems like the Germanwings pilot may have been under extreme stress, too. There have been stories of depression, large debts owed for training, vision problems, all hidden from his employer because, it’s suggested, they might have ended his career.

Background stories of the extreme stress young pilots, trying to build a career in the profession, have to endure, have appeared. Big debts, uncertain income, zero hours contracts, excessive hours without adequate rest. Of the fear of reporting stress (or any other illness) because it would lead to suspension, loss of pay, perhaps even dismissal. Lots more hungry pilots out there.

And all because of aviation deregulation and the resultant fierce competition. Airlines try to pay less and less for more and more, from all their employees, not just pilots. When they still are employees, that is, and not independent contractors with no guarantee of work, and no security of income. As this article explores. And also this one.

Flying a planeload of passengers into a mountain is an extreme response, but in this context, it does become a little more explicable. The Germanwings pilot told his girlfriend.

“One day I’m going to do something that will change the whole system, and everyone will know my name and remember.”

It seems the casualisation of work, the reduction of people to no more than disposable components, in short, the dehumanisation of work, may be coming home to roost.

Simon Moores, a commercial pilot and aviation writer who advises companies on risk management, wrote in the Guardian:

I’m a commercial pilot and an occasional instructor working outside the airline industry, but the stories I hear from my friends, about the pressures of working in the business, have remained consistent for a long time now.

Principal among the stresses lies chronic fatigue, and this is particularly common among the low-cost carriers.

In addition to fatigue, younger pilots have told me of a different kind of insidious stress while working for budget airlines, and that’s a fear of losing one’s first aviation job as a low-hours commercial pilot through failing to perform to management expectations.

This fear, more often than not, surrounds zero-hours contracts and the average £50,000 or more of training debt that a first officer might be carrying when he or she climbs out of a simulator and into the righthand seat of a Boeing 737 or A310 Airbus.

More than one in six of Europe’s pilots are now employed through a temporary job agency, are self-employed or work on a zero-hours contract with no minimum pay guaranteed.

And it’s not just in aviation. Around the world, long distance truck drivers are suffering one of the most punishing and deadly working environments. In the USA:

Truck drivers are expected to drive up to fourteen hours straight a day, receiving roughly ten hours off prior to the beginning of the next shift. Legislation regulating the amount of driving a trucker performs over the course of a day and week does exist, but these rules are commonly bent and broken.

Truckers rarely receive more than one day of work off a week. The chance of dying on the job is extremely high, with deaths of truckers in auto accidents accounting for 12% of all work related deaths in the United States.

All this comes with a paltry average annual salary of just under US$38,000. A trucker can easily work 4400 hours a year, coming to an hourly wage of $8.70.

It’s a pretty deadly profession in Oz, too.

Approximately one in five deaths on Australian roads involves a heavy vehicle. A study led by Professor Mark Stevenson studied the causes of truck accidents between 2008 and 2011 in NSW and WA, looking at issues ranging from fatigue, driving experience, payment of rates, use of stimulants to stay awake, health of drivers and truck technology.

The study found that:

  • truck drivers with less than ten years of experience have three times the crash risk of more experienced drivers

  • unladen trucks are more than twice as likely to crash than loaded trucks

  • anti-lock brakes and cruise control demonstrably reduce the risk of crashes

  • driving between midnight and 6am increases the risk of crashing more than three times

One in twelve Australian truckies tested by Victorian police were found to be using ice in order to help meet their punishing schedules.

Age care workers, teachers, doctors and nurses and other once-respected professions are also being dragged into the snakepit of casualisation, zero hours, multiple jobs: to try to survive, along with lo-pay low-status hotel and hospitality workers and cleaners.

Booming property prices mean soaring rents,long commutes to work from affordable housing, income too erratic to satisfy bank loan criteria . . . the list of stressors is long.

At the same time, casualisation and zero hours mean it’s practically impossible to protest or strike. The unions that would once have prevented all this have been demonised and eviscerated. Except for a few honourable exceptions, they now exist as little more than career structures for aspiring politicians and media identities.

With no other outlet for his rage, one pilot has taken terrible action to protest the grinding down to which we are subjecting more and more decent working people.

You may say, “But he was only one pilot! He was unstable! He was unfit to fly!” But who and what made him so? Would he have gone to such horrible lengths if he had not been subjected to these  – I was going to say ‘inhumane’, but I’ll hold it at ‘extremely, excessively stressful’ – working conditions? So that we can have cheap flights?

You may say, his working life might have been a good deal worse. He might have been assembling iPhones till he fell asleep at his workbench. Or threw himself off the roof. He could have been sewing hundreds of cheap garments, hour after hour, in a rickety Bangladeshi clothes factory, until it collapsed on him and killed him.

The only difference between him and those desperate workers was that he had the power to strike back. And he used it. He flew 150 people into the ground at such speed that only fragments of their bodies remain. His breathing remained even and unchanged till the last. What else could this be but cold, cold rage?

Unless we change our ways, we may find ourselves flying blind into a storm of vengeance from abused and tormented workers like Lubitz. In our skies, on our roads, even in our homes: ordinary decent people, driven beyond endurance, realising their power, and striking back.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)