Bitterness in the skies: Interview with unionists (a pilot and two flight attendants)

Authors: Wong Siu Woon, Michelle & Poon Man Hon

A local TV drama “Triumph in the Skies II" has set off a stir throughout the city. Many people admire the wonderful lives of pilots and flight attendants because of the series. Is their career in real life similar to that portrayed in the series? We have interviewed a pilot and two flight attendants to understand the sweetness and bitterness of their jobs, and how their unions strive for labour rights.

"Cry out against injustice” is the entry requirement for pilots 

Jeremy Tam has 12 years’ experience in civil aviation. In 1999, he joined the cadet pilot programme. He said during the 13-month programme they have had almost 70 examinations. But high IQ is not a major criterion for a pilot. “The most important requirement is to....

The main duty of flight attendant is to ensure passenger safety

Dora, Inflight service manager, has been a flight attendant (FA) for 27 years. She applied for the job not because she wanted to travel around the world. She only thought this profession was nobler at that time. Dora shared that in reality, most FAs just stay in hotels and ...

Carol has worked in British Airways for 21 years. She emphasized FAs’ work is not “Dressing up“but taking care of the safety of passengers. FAs need to be trained each year, including emergency evacuation procedures and a variety of contingency handling procedures. They must ...

 including emergency evacuation procedures and a variety of contingency handling procedures. They must pass practical and written tests for contract renewal.

She remembered a foreign male passenger was sweaty when he got aboard. Carol immediately approached him to see if he needed any help. He felt abdominal pain. Carol suggested he leave the plane and receive treatment, because after takeoff, he may not get any emergency treatment. Later the passenger informed the company that he was suffering from acute hernia. If he insisted on getting aboard he may die. So FAs should not only look “pretty”, but should also have professional experiences and good communication skills.

Union Blasting

Dora is chairperson of the Cathay Pacific Flight Attendants Union (FAU). While she is working, she often receives member queries. Although the union and the company negotiate annually, the status has no legal protection. Many company policies have bypassed the union when they were implemented, such as the ones adopted since 1996-97 whereby the company recruits hourly rated employees and foreign employees. In 2009, the company tried to cancel the 70-hour minimum guaranteed working hours which may affect FAs’ income without consulting the union. The union mobilized members to protest against the new arrangement. The company ultimately abolished it.

Last year, Cathay Pacific unilaterally announced a 2-percent pay rise, forced employees to work overnight in order to reduce the outstation allowance and planned to recruit more foreign workers to replace local FAs. The union launched an industrial action against these. After 20 hours of negotiations, the company has finally made a concession to restrict the number of foreign FAs to not exceeding 15% of all FAs. The management also agreed to cancel overnight work arrangement. After this incident, more FAs understand how worker solidarity can safeguard their rights.

Dora believes that "regardless of education level and type of work, all workers need collective bargaining legislation to get rid of bullying from the boss!"

Battle against age discrimination in British Airways

Carol has the same feeling as she is the chairperson of the British Airways cabin crew union of Hong Kong. Hong Kong has no anti-age discrimination legislation, so the mandatory retirement age for all major airlines’ FAs is 45-55 years old. In 2006, she has complained about such a discriminatory arrangement. However, she did not get any positive response from the Equal Opportunities Commission. EOC staff even sarcastically told her to “go to the UK to sue the airways”. Carol was so outraged that she decided to go to England for help. With the assistance of the British Airways union in the UK and after six and a half years, the affected Hong Kong based FAs have successfully got the compensation from British Airways under the conciliation deal. Carol is so upset - as Hong Kong people, they need to find justice in a foreign country. But after this incident, she and her union have won respect and recognition. "The strength of a union comes from its members." Carol explained with pride.

"Cool" because they are in solidarity

In the TV series, pilots and flight attendants are “cool” because they are handsome and gorgeous. In reality, they are no different from other wage earners. They are also facing a lot of exploitation and bitterness. Fortunately, both pilots and flight attendants’ unions have high union density rate which is quite rare in Hong Kong.