Aeroflot may have been the official carrier of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics which ended yesterday, but its pilots are being left out in the cold following a long-standing dispute between their union and the management.
Russia’s biggest airline carrier is under intense pressure from labour rights groups who say the company is putting passengers’ lives at risk by refusing to listen to the safety concerns of pilots.
Aeroflot pilots based at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport have accused the company of forcing pilots to work in hazardous conditions and failing to fairly compensate pilots for night flights and thousands of hours of overtime.
This July, the Moscow City Court ordered Aeroflot – of which the Russian state has a 51.17 per cent stake – to pay over one billion rubles (approximately US $33 million) in compensation for 17 months of unpaid benefits.
But the airline has contested the ruling and three members of the Sheremetyevo Trade Union of Airline Pilots (ShPLS) have since been arrested on what the union and its supporters are calling trumped-up embezzlement charges.
In October, ShPLS’s executive director Alexei Shlyapnikov and his senior colleague Valeriy Pimoshenko were detained after allegedly taking a bribe from the company, while Sergei Knyshov, another ShPLS member and a respected Moscow lawmaker, was later arrested in connection with the case.
The ‘Aeroflot Three’ are now facing up to ten years in prison if tried and convicted.
But the ShPLS has denounced the arrests as a clear attempt to punish the union for its activism and to derail collective bargaining negotiations.
“We think it was a provocation planned by the company’s management to destroy the trade union,” ShPLS President and former Aeroflot pilot Igor Deldyuzhov told Equal Times.
“They would feel much better without us.”
In response, the ShPLS has launched a vigorous campaign to ensure the release of the Aeroflot Three, attracting support both in Russia and abroad.
As well as backing from the Confederation of Labour of Russia (KTR) and its affiliates, the pilots have also won the support of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC).
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, even sent a letter to the Russian president Vladimir Putin asking him to intervene.
But Putin is yet to comment publicly on the dispute.
Equal Times also contacted the airline, which has been a member of the SkyTeam airline alliance since 2006, for comment but our requests went unanswered.
Trade union portal LabourStart has also launched an online campaign to call for the release of Shlyapnikov, Pimoshenko and Knysho.
But despite collecting over 12,500 signatures, the trio remain in a pre-trial detention facility in Moscow while an investigation into the case continues.
“We will see when the trial starts,” Deldyuzhov said. “But we hope that the investigators will consider all versions [of events], not just the one presented by Aeroflot.”
Since the arrests last year, collective bargaining negotiations between the union and the management have stalled.
“ShPLS has been fighting for a long time for the right to sign its own collective bargaining agreement with the employer to reflect unique aspects of airline pilots’ work, such as work and rest schedule, leave, planning, insurance, and health check-ups,” said KTR President Boris Kravchenko in a letter to the ITUC.
“Trade unions of Sky Team member airlines have expressed their support for the ShPLS’ fair demands many times before.”
However, Aeroflot management has refused to participate in any official negotiations with the ShPLS and Kravchenko accuses the management of trying to “smear” the union in the media to make negotiations “impossible”.
Deldyuzhov himself worked with Aeroflot for 18 years before being fired in 2011 – in retaliation, he says, for his union activism.
A court later ordered Aeroflot to reinstate him.
“Profit before safety”
ShPLS and its supporters have organised several, sometimes novel, protests actions to raise the alarm over what is perceived as the company’s policy of putting profit before customer and staff safety.
According to the trade union, heavy schedules of the pilots mean they are overworked without sufficient breaks.
The number of pilots on long-haul flights has also been reduced from three to two.
The accumulated fatigue as a result of these conditions, they argue, could lead to human errors.
“[Flying] is piecework in Russia. If the pilots want to be paid they have to work regardless of their schedule and norm violations,” says Deldyuzhov.
But Aeroflot has insisted that its flights are safe.
In an email statement last month, the company told Agence France-Presse that “passengers’ and flight safety are top priorities of Aeroflot.”
Roman Gusarov, an independent civil aviation expert and editor-in-chief of the industry portal Avia.ru, says that it isn’t entirely correct to link compensation with safety.
“Pilots can only fly up to a fixed number of hours. The fact that they don’t get some additional payments doesn’t really mean safety rules violations,” Gusarov said in a phone interview.
In fact, he argued, Aeroflot’s salaries are comparable to those in major foreign airlines, while Russia’s tax system is more liberal.
“I can fully understand those activists, but it would be hard for them to win a large public support – all their privileges considered,” Gusarov said.
But Russia’s air safety record is dismal compared to other major nations.
According to the Aviation Safety Network, there have been 13 plane crashes in Russia since the beginning of 2013 alone.
In 2011, when the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team died in Yak-42 crash, Russia sealed its position as one of the most dangerous places to travel by plane.
But while some of the accidents were blamed on mechanical failures in obsolete Soviet-made jets, others, including the two aforementioned, were linked to pilot errors.
Compared to many other international airlines, Aeroflot’s own air safety record is fairly good, with just one accident in the last ten years.
And while smaller Russian airlines operating in remote regions still use Soviet-made aircrafts, Aeroflot boasts one of the newest fleets in Europe, not to mention highly trained staff.
Not enough pilots
However, Russia’s poor air safety record as well as the Aeroflot labour conflict all point to one major issue in the country’s civil aviation sector – a lack of qualified pilots.
According to Deldyuzhov, there are between 1,500 and 1,600 pilots working for Aeroflot, while RIA Novosti (the Russian News & Information Agency) recently reported that there are some 14,200 pilots in Russia’s civil aviation sector.
Founded in 1923, Aeroflot was the Soviet Union’s sole aircraft carrier.
Its pilots operated Soviet-made aircrafts exclusively, and they weren’t required to study foreign languages.
Today, Aeroflot, which still carries its hammer-and- sickle logo, is one of numerous private companies in Russia that own modern Boeing and Airbus aircrafts and fly them around the globe.
According to the Federal Air Transport Agency, there were 126 commercial airlines in the Russian Federation at the beginning of 2012, and Aeroflot is the undisputed market leader, with a net profit in 2013 of over 11 billion rubles (approx. US$308 million).
But like its competitors, the company relies on a dwindling number of pilots to service a rapidly growing market.
“It is difficult for [the old generation] to start learning English to master the new planes,” says Gusarov.
A complaint about a shortage of Russian pilots has seen Aeroflot and other big companies such as Transaero lobby against restrictions banning them from hiring foreign citizens.
In December, the government finally approved measures that would temporary abolish the ban, in an attempt to fill Russia’s pilot shortage.
But the measure has been strongly opposed by ShPLS over fears that foreign pilots will squeeze out Russian ones.
“There is not really a shortage of flying personnel. There are not enough captains,” Deldyuzhov concedes, “but there are a lot of co-pilots.”
He says the solution lies in airlines providing junior staff with more opportunities.
But, Gusarov said that the large companies are reluctant to hire inexperienced pilots for fear of tarnishing its reputation by lowering standards.
“I doubt that foreigners will leave Russian pilots unemployed,” he said. "It is a global demand: airline companies worldwide are short of thousands of pilots today.”
But until a solution is found, Aeroflot’s pilots will continue to feel under pressure – while their advocates remain in prison.