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Brexit and IR35: Are the days of the self-employed pilot numbered?

Low cost airlines could be under the radar for their pilot hiring practices
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Let’s get to the good news first. The UK Civil Aviation Authority has launched a simplified process to allow pilots who transferred their licence and medical certificate to an EU member state in preparation for the end of the transition period to get their UK licence back. This is welcome news for all pilots, including those that are registered as self-employed.

Now to the bad news. The European Cockpit Association (ECA) is reporting some anti-crew practices, including fired and hired on zero-hours contract tactics by some airlines, which could create an Uber-like court case to emerge for the aviation industry.


Thousands of pilots transferred their documents to European member states in preparation for the end of the transition period to allow them to continue operating EU-registered aircraft. 

Now that the UK has left the European aviation system, pilots are able to hold both a UK and European licence – something that was not possible under European regulations. 

The new process is available to any pilot who held an EASA flight crew licence before the end of the transition period. 

Rob Bishton, Director at the Civil Aviation Authority, said: “I am really pleased we are able to offer this simplified route for pilots wishing to hold both a UK and EASA licence. We know it was a tough decision for many pilots when they transferred their licences to another European member state and hope they will make use of this opportunity.”

More details on the UK/EU licensing process can be found here.  


Are the days of the self-employed pilot numbered?

Prior to March 2020, around 9% of pilots are self-employed, according to a study by the EU Commission, carried out by the consultancy Ricardo. This figure varies among countries, type of air carrier and business model. The majority (88%) are contracted through an intermediary and 75% of all self-employed actually work for a low-cost carrier. The self-employment champions, according to the report are Ryanair with almost 60% of its pilots being self-employed, followed by Wizzair Post-COVID, where the fear for some is that pilots will only be ‘rehired’ if they set up as self-employed. 

However, the researchers are doubting if even a small number of those pilots are genuinely self-employed, reported The European Cockpit Association (ECA), which represents over 40,000 European pilots from the National pilot Associations in 33 European states.

The vast majority of self-employed pilots – 90% – are not free to work for more than one airline in parallel, and 93% have no flexibility to decide when or how many hours to fly, said the ECA. Both are major criteria when defining if someone is indeed genuinely self-employed.

“This effectively means that self-employment is used by airlines as a smoke-screen for what should be regular employment. Just like Uber’s self-employed drivers,” said the ECA.

Young pilots are particularly affected by such precarious employment, according to the ECA with two out of 5 (almost 40%) of 20 to 30-year-old pilots report having no direct employment relationship with their airline. Some airlines offer their cadets a position at deplorable conditions, or even resort to ‘Pay-to-Fly’ schemes where the pilot actually pays the airline to fly their aircraft on (revenue-earning) flights. 

Those pilots working for Low-Cost Carriers (LCCs) are most affected. In fact, LCCs are the largest users of atypical employment, in what researchers see as a clear divide in the employment market between traditional network carriers and low-cost ones:

•    In LCCs only half of the pilots are directly employed (53%), while 15% are self-employed, 11% fly for an airline via an own (e.g. limited liability) company, and 17% are working on a temporary agency contract. 
•    Self-employment is one of the most prevalent types of atypical employment. 7 out of 10 of all self-employed pilots work for an LCC.
•    In network carriers, these “atypical practices” represent a significantly lower share of their workforce: 0.6% of pilots are self-employed pilots, 0.4% fly via an own company and 1.7% work on temporary agency contract, i.e. a total of 2.7%.


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