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Doors to manual and cross-check: professional and precarious aspects of commercial pilots’ employment

Grant, Kirsteen; Maxwell, G A


G A Maxwell


This paper centres on commercial airline pilots, an occupational group comprising around 130,000 pilots worldwide (Prendergast, 2015). Largely a group of ‘privileged professional men’ (Ashcraft, 2005; p67), commercial pilots have received comparatively little academic research attention, despite high profile media coverage of commercial airline disasters such as the crashing of a Germanwings aeroplane recently (de Castella, 2015). The aim of the paper is to investigate the nexus between professional and precarious aspects of commercial pilots’ employment in the UK.
Professionalism is often associated with qualifications membership of a professional body, and high standards of conduct. More than an elite occupation grouping, professionalism can also be conceived of as an elevation in occupational standing, as Thompson and McHugh (2002) imply. ‘The increased use of the concepts [of profession and professionalism] in different occupational groups’ (Evetts, 2003; p395) and the ‘growing importance of professions’ (Brock et al., 2014; p1) has been noted. Further, while an increasing number of occupations have been accorded a status of ‘new professionalisms,’ it has been argued that the very meaning of professionalism remains unclear (Evans, 2008; p20). Indeed it may be more contemporarily appropriate to use the term ‘lovely jobs’ instead of professional jobs, adopting Goos and Manning’s (2007; p118) classification of high paying jobs. In contrast, low paying jobs are dubbed ‘lousy jobs’ (ibid.), and this is a feature of precarious employment (Ori and Sargeant, 2013).
Precarious, non-standard work arrangements, for instance in part time or temporary work, are a deeply established (ibid.) and current feature (Anderson, 2010) of work in the UK, and around the world (Quinlan et al., 2001). Not generally associated with professional or lovely employment, they are ‘characterised by variable work schedules, reduced job security, lower wages, hazards at the workplace and stressful psychological working conditions’ (Benach and Muntaner, 2007; p276). Commercial piloting has been linked to emotional stress due to job responsibility (Butcher, 2003), the negative effects of fatigue and sleep loss due to shift working patterns (Jackson and Earl, 2006), and relatively low pay (Cahill, 2015). Therefore it can be seen that there is a nexus between the professional occupation of commercial piloting and aspects of precarious employment. Such connections are discussed in the paper, theoretically and empirically.
The exploratory empirical work is qualitative, namely in-depth interviews with 20 experienced commercial pilots operating from and in the UK. Preliminary analysis of the abundant interview data indicates notable aspects of professional employment alongside precarious aspects of employment. The professional aspects of employment comprise: recognition of personal responsibility for lives; high levels of qualifications and constant scrutiny; and demonstrating professionalism in command and leadership roles. The precarious aspects are: personal debts, budget cuts and cost saving pressures; and fatigue and boredom. In sum, there is clearly a nexus between professional and precarious aspects of commercial pilots’ employment to the extent that the juxtaposition of competitiveness and safety has, literally, potentially life threatening implications.

Presentation Conference Type Conference Paper (Published)
Conference Name 34th International Labour Process Conference
Start Date Apr 4, 2016
End Date Apr 6, 2016
Acceptance Date Apr 4, 2016
Publication Date Apr 4, 2016
Deposit Date Nov 21, 2016
Book Title ILPC Proceedings
Keywords commercial pilots, airline employment, precarious work, professionalism, working conditions
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