How Labor Shaped the Airline Industry

Over the entire history of capitalism there has been a fundamental conflict between the workers and the capitalist class. Lower wages means higher profits. In the workplace itself, the capitalist is concerned with profit margins and does not favor safety measures for the workforce, which eat into his future dividends. Improvements won by the workers is a loss for the owners. Although some workers have won reforms through years of struggle, workers in newer industries are faced with a lack of regulation and the ruthlessness of venture capitalists. Such was once the case in the aviation industry.

The airline industry of the early 20th century is a far cry from the way it is today. Its current state is not the byproduct of capitalist “innovation,” but rather a constant struggle by pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and other workers to ensure their own safety. Aviation is a high-consequence environment, and the lack of workplace democracy for those putting themselves at risk can lead to deadly results. We can see this from the very beginning of commercial aviation as a whole.

The current state of the airline industry is not the byproduct of capitalist “innovation,” but rather a constant struggle by pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and other workers to ensure their own safety. / Image: Imagine America Foundation

Early commercial aviation: 1918–1930s

Early aviators were the pioneers of a newly formed industry. At the time, everything was primitive, in both technology and labor relations. The new sector was composed of venture capitalists seeking to establish a foothold in the transportation market and thus, it was mostly free from government intervention. Because operating an airline was—and still is—incredibly expensive, profit margins were thin and most airlines only lasted a few years. As a result, the venture capitalists had to put immense pressure on their pilots in order to stay profitable, and this often compromised safety.

This was known as pilot pushing, or the practice of forcing pilots to fly in extremely hazardous conditions, ranging from severe thunderstorms to debilitating fatigue. To treat pilots with a sense of respect and allow for rest or cancellations would cut into the capitalists’ bottom line. It was far cheaper for the owners to “lose a pilot and a plane”every so often.

As a result of this mistreatment, aviation gained a reputation as an extremely dangerous profession. Pilots understood that if they didn’t speak up, then it was only a matter of time before more and more people died. In 1931, they founded the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), the first and oldest pilot union in existence. It took them years to gain real victories, and sometimes it took crashes like TWA Flight 6 to push for legislation.

In this specific case, a Douglas DC-2 was pushed to fly in extremely low, overcast conditions, until they ultimately clipped a power line, killing five of the eleven people on board. The management of Trans World Airlines refused to allow the crew to divert to a field with better conditions. Sadly, this practice had been extremely common up to this point.

Reforms were advocated by the labor movement and this was done in the context of the founding of the CIO and the militant strikes of the 1930s. Essential rights, such as a pilot or dispatcher having the legal backing to cancel a flight without punitive action, was instrumental in fighting the practice of pilot pushing.

TWA Flight 6 Crash
Disasters like crash of TWA flight 6 could have been avoided had the airlines paid attention to the needs of their workers. / Image: public domain

The Jet Age: 1950s–60s

The state of the industry in the 1940s was transformed by World War II, after which there was a boom in both technological development and the number of trained pilots in the civilian sector. The days of the old rotary engine airliners were fading and jet aircraft were becoming more popular due to their increased speed and efficiency. Although the industry was taking off, pilots and flight crew were left behind. The new jets came with a higher workload, not just for pilots, but also mechanics and flight engineers.

Even if the profit margins were high, it is a rare capitalist who follows by raising the wages of their employees. Sure, there may be a concession every now and then, but it is rarely proportionate to the actual increase in workload. Pilots were not only experiencing increased fatigue due to the complexity of jet aircraft, but they were also criminally underpaid for the new skills and techniques they needed to learn. Similarly, mechanics had to learn how to maintain entirely new engines that were a far cry from what they once knew. And the once essential role of flight engineer was becoming obsolete. The airline bosses were neglecting the industry’s backbone.

As a result, this era was marked by waves of massive strikes from all facets of the airline industry: pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, flight engineers, and other personnel. The airline industry became heavily unionized, including ticket agents and baggage clerks. As a result they won significant raises, as well as essential reforms like fatigue management was by systems. Flight engineers were even able to keep their jobs until modern computers made them obsolete.

In total, this decade saw the most disruptions in terms of strikes that the industry has ever seen. At its peak in 1958, there were 14 strikes, ranging in length from one day to over a hundred days at a time! This militant class struggle would pave the way for future aviation labor efforts. Despite a turbulent future, this would remain a period where some of the greatest gains to date were won. These years were, and arguably still are, the “golden age of aviation,” from the point of view of the workers.

DeHavilland Comet 1A
Jets like the Comet 1A were introduced after World War II making aviation more profitable, but with that came with a higher workload and steep learning curve for workers in the industry. / Image: Wikipedia

Deregulation and its consequences: 1970s–90s

Unfortunately, this era would not last forever. The Civil Aeronautics Board—the regulatory precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration—was a horrifically inefficient bureaucracy that was notorious for its incompetence. Fares were high, flights were inefficient, and people were unhappy. This was by no means the fault of the workers, but rather, the incompetency of the capitalist government and its astounding ability to put a straitjacket on itself. Yet the workers would pay the price, as the bosses wanted to use “market forces,” as a way to launch an attack on the airline workers and cut the government bureaucracy. In 1979, Democratic President Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act into law, which would prove disastrous for the working class.

The Airline Deregulation Act followed the same path as any “reform”under capitalism. The bourgeoisie claim that there will be an initial benefit for everyone, but the workers pay the price. Airlines were able to set their own schedules, fares, and routes; and as a result the industry ostensibly became a free market. But with any free market, over time, monopolies are formed. What was once an industry with hundreds of smaller airlines would become an industry dominated by a handful of airlines in every niche.

As a result of this fierce competition, pilot unions had a harder time negotiating for raises and a lot of operational tasks such as maintenance were outsourced to third parties. But perhaps the ugliest example of this was the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike of 1981. PATCO called for a $10,000 raise, a 32-hour workweek, and a better benefits package for all of its controllers. The“free-market-loving” President, Ronald Reagan, fired most of the controllers and replaced them with military scabs. It would take the industry over a decade to recover from this, and to this day, the FAA has trouble hiring new controllers. Although the air traffic controllers were federal employees, Reagan’s action gave the private sector the green light to confront the unions head on, especially in the airline industry.

Around the same time, flight attendants were also fighting for fairer treatment. Historically, they had faced a great deal of sexism, which was used to justify lower wages. The capitalists argued that their future husbands would meet their long-term economic needs. It wasn’t until they teamed up with women’s rights and LGBTQ organizations, along with other unions, that they were able to win more from the bosses. For a time, they were able to win some input in cabin and galley configurations, but once the capitalist class realized how many scabs they could find, it became significantly harder for them to strike without the risk of losing their jobs.

Airline mergers
In 1979, Democrat Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act, which accelerated the monopolization of the industry.

If the 1950s was the golden age for aviation workers, then there is no doubt that the 70s and 80s were the dark ages. What was once a field filled with a relatively militant and uncompromising union leadership became picked away by capitalist greed and the tougher conditions that came with deregulation. The post-World War II capitalist boom had turned to its opposite and this created conditions for an increase in the class struggle. The change in the conditions of capitalism required an urgent change in the perspective strategy and tactics of the labor leaders—but this has still not happened.

A turning point: The 2000s

At this point, the industry was an oligopoly. There were a few major competitors that were slowly whittling away at the remaining airlines. If you look in any sector, be it cargo, majors, regionals, low-cost carriers, etc., there are only a handful per each market niche. And even then, two-thirds of the industry is controlled by four major carriers. As a result of the “free market,” passengers saw awful conditions compared to the past. Comfort was virtually nonexistent, flights were often delayed or overbooked, and bags were frequently lost. Pilot unions were essentially neutered by this point and wages were stagnant. Incredibly, at some regional airlines, the pay was so low that first officers were either on food stamps or working second jobs!

It wasn’t until the crash of Colgan Air 3407 in 2009 that workers began to shift back towards a more militant attitude. At the time, there were far lower standards for pilots, who needed only a quarter of the flight hours they do today in order to operate an airliner. As a result, pilots were easy to come by and held far less bargaining power than they do today. They were underpaid, overworked, and highly fatigued. The crew of Colgan Air 3407 felt pressured to work while sick and tired. They failed to recover from a simple aerodynamic stall, or the loss of airflow over the wings, and fell into a suburban neighborhood, killing fifty. This pushed Congress to increase the number of hours needed to fly for an airline, which once again made pilots harder to acquire and far more valuable.

It would be an abysmal take to say the crash was good because it helped unions, and that is certainly not the takeaway here. Rather, we should understand that the capitalist class was so blinded by its desire to work pilots like machines that 50 people died as a result. Under a workers’ democracy, pilots would have a direct say in hiring requirements and training programs, and would not feel pressured to fly when sick or fatigued. There would be no cold analysis of how many crashes we can have before it cuts into profits. And there would not be greed driving the endless expansion of the industry.

Continuing struggle: The modern era

The problems faced by pilots and all workers today are a result of the decline of capitalism and the toll it takes on people. There is a worldwide mental health epidemic, with 40% of adults experiencing some kind of anxiety or depression. Pilots and air traffic controllers are not superhuman. They are also faced with an archaic mental health system run by a degenerate bureaucracy. Many also struggle with substance abuse problems, and feel that if they seek help, they will risk losing their medical clearance and their jobs. I myself have seen peers lose their medical certificates and spend years waiting to get back.

It has become so severe that some pilots are resorting to suicide, such as the tragic case of Germanwings Flight 9525, or the recent tragedy involving a student at UND who felt trapped by restrictions when it comes to having depression and felt seeking help was impossible. The fact of the matter is that no one should have to place their mental wellbeing on the sidelines for the profit motive, and that a system under the control of the workers would be far better equipped at addressing such an epidemic rather than falling into the bourgeois idea that mental health issues are merely a personal problem.

Delta strike
The fight against airline bosses continues as they attempt to achieve pre-COVID numbers with post-COVID staffing. / Image: Pat Mahoney, Twitter

The response to all of this from airlines has been questionable at best. They are too scared to confront the root of the problem and instead seek to put bandaids over bullet holes. Substance abuse programs have grown rapidly in both the number of pilots enrolled and the quality. While it is good that these pilots have a resource, there is a need to address why they’re resorting to alcohol and drugs in the first place. Unfortunately, fixing the problem at its root is not possible under capitalism, since it is ultimately the root cause. Addiction is a complex and multifaceted problem, but the stress at work and with life in general caused by the system is certainly making things worse.

Next to mental health, the greatest challenge for workers in the industry will be recovering from the COVID pandemic. For two years, the sector was in a near-comatose state, and unions had to fight tooth and nail to ensure their workers were taken care of, either with paid leave, early retirement, or ensuring some flights continued to operate. This will no doubt go down as one of the biggest wins in airline union history, and it will also be remembered as a moment that shook the workers of the airline industry into more clearly understanding why unions are essential.

The fight against airline venture capitalists continues as they attempt to achieve pre-COVID numbers with post-COVID staffing. Southwest Airlines had the audacity to sell 4,000 flights while only 3,800 were staffable, resulting in a massive strike that shook management, which had grown too used to a docile workforce. Delta held a massive Fourth of July strike, which we can only hope ruined their bosses’ day off!

We know from history that there can be long periods when nothing happens, punctuated by short periods of enormous activity, and the aviation industry is no exception. Now more than ever, we can see the conflict between the decline of capitalism and the wages, conditions, and rights of workers. As Marxists we must stand alongside the pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and all workers of the aviation industry and help fight for better working conditions—a victory for one is a victory for all! Any gains made by one sector of the working class benefits all other sectors. The only way to win is to adopt a class-struggle Perspective that opposes collaboration with the bosses and challenges the capitalist way of organizing transportation and society as a whole.

In the long-term, we need a workers’ government that would nationalize the airlines, unifying the industry and operating it under democratic workers’ control, and coordinating it with other forms of transportation and logistics. We must rip the industry from the hands of the capitalist class and put it in the hands of those who depend on it, make it function, and face the consequences of decisions made today in comfy offices: the workers.

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