Taiwan Pilot Strike Shows How Long Hours Raise The Risk Of Accidents

16-Feb-2019 Intellasia | Forbes | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Last year, a China Airlines pilot flew 63 hours over a 12-day stretch that allowed him to rest for only two of those days. The long hours combined with the time-zone changes left him feeling so sick that he couldn’t make it to his next shift, according to a Chinese-language story by Taiwan news website The Reporter. At least he didn’t cause an accident, which is the obvious risk.

But because of cases like this one, among others, 600 pilots of Taiwan-based China Airlines pilots went on strike from February 8. Their bargaining unit, the Pilots Union Taoyuan, has been negotiating all the while with the airline and reached a tentative deal Thursday.

Taiwan is know for having a work culture that sees employees labour not only all day but long into the night as well. Some companies actually require the extra hours although they never clearly stipulate it in written form. Other workers have been known to stay on the job until mid-evening to show their dedication to their superiors. But overwork has been attributed to causing early death in some cases. But when this trend hits an airline, it can literally lead to disaster.

“It’s common sense that when you’re stressed out when flying or driving a car it raises the risk of an accident,” says Eric Lin, aviation analyst with the investment bank UBS in Hong Kong.



Strike after history of accidents

Safety was an issue for China Airlines after it experienced 26 crashes and other mishaps between 1966 and 2016. The 60-year-old airline has changed the way it hires and trains pilots, but the strike indicates it may still need to go further. The “established” airlines in Asia are keen to keep pilots attentive, for safety reasons, Lin says. “Given they have gone through the typical development of an emerging market, safety is given top priority,” he says.

China Airlines and the union representing about 900 of its 1,350-plus pilots had discussed workloads since 2017 without reaching a deal, hence the strike.

An airline publicist would not say whether China Airlines believes its pilots are overworked, but the company acknowledged the issue in a statement Monday.

Staffing seven-hour flights with three people would require hiring 90 additional pilots every year at their normal $160,000 annual full-time salary, increasing operational costs by $14.6 million a year, the airline says as reported by government-run Central News Agency.

“We’re not optimistic,” says union board director Chen Pei-pei. “We’ve been talking to the company since 2017 when we first asked for adjustments. The company never made a deal.”

Airline, union talk at odd hours

To draw attention to the hours that pilots work, the union called for a negotiation time of 1 a.m. Wednesday. Two other rounds of talks broke down during the strike, which had caused the cancellation of 174 flights as of Wednesday and handed China Airlines $123 million in losses.

Taiwan’s transportation ministry, also the mediator, owns the biggest share in the listed airline, and former deputy minister Ho Nuan-hsuan has chaired it since 2016. China Airlines normally operates about 1,400 flights weekly to more than 100 cities and moves about 7 million passengers per year. In the 1990s, it ranked among the five most profitable carriers in the world, taking a $125 million profit on revenue of $1.7 billion in 1993. In 2017, the company reported a $71 million after-tax net profit and $4.5 billion in operating revenue.

The union asked China Airlines this week to ease on-the-job fatigue by allowing crews of four people on all flights of more than 12 hours, and three people for all seven-hour journeys, Chen says. Airline spokesman Jason Liu said Tuesday the company was open to those ideas, and during 11 hours of talks Wednesday it agreed to add crew on five of 10 routes where the union believes pilots are at risk of fatigue. The final deal reached Thursday needs just a final legal review, then pilots will return to work.




Category: Taiwan

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