No-fly zone

August 3, 2010

IT MAY be, as some of the employees of Philippine Airlines have started to suggest, that the untimely resignation of about two dozen pilots is a crisis that is the company’s own making. There will be space to discuss that, but first things first: Both the pilots and PAL management must recognize that the dispute affects not only the two parties themselves but the general public. The crippling of PAL, in other words, is a matter of national interest.

That is why former Sen. Ernesto Herrera’s press release circulated Tuesday, on behalf of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, strikes us as both misleading and unhelpful. PAL cannot force its pilots to fly or to stay, Herrera said. “professionals
are entitled to go wherever their skills will get the greatest reward. If employers or companies can invoke their need to stay profitable in order to justify indiscriminate job cuts, then surely professionals and other staff are also entitled to abandon their posts in favor of greener pasture elsewhere.”

No one disagrees with the basic principle that the pilots—13 captains and 12 first officers flying the airline’s workhorse planes—can leave for higher pay or better conditions abroad. Not even PAL management. “PAL doesn’t want to get in the way of its pilots’ dream of landing better paying jobs abroad, but they have contractual obligations with the company and a moral responsibility to thousands of passengers,” a management statement read.

The immediate issue is precisely those contractual obligations. Because commercial airplane pilots possess what are called “mission-critical skills,” they cannot simply resign. Government regulations require six months’ notice—surely a reasonable requirement, designed to ensure the traveling public’s safety by providing the airline enough time to train replacements. The pilots who left the company immediately after tendering their letters of resignation thus have some explaining to do—to the public at large.

But the long-term issue is squarely in PAL management’s court. And it is something that airline executives cannot simply explain away by saying that other airlines offer “two to three times” a PAL pilot’s salary. A higher salary, after all, is not always the main deciding factor in choosing a new job; work conditions come into play, including employee morale and the reasonable expectation of success in one’s chosen career path. The rumblings from PAL’s rank and file, therefore, form an ominous soundtrack: rumors about unsatisfactory secondment to affiliate companies; employee complaints about undermanned flights, resulting in overworked flight attendants; excessive downsizing. Even the improbably coincidental immediate resignation of the pilots is already a statement in itself.

If these issues remain unresolved, what is to prevent another mass resignation of pilots, or airline mechanics, or flight attendants, in the future?

The international repercussions, it bears belaboring, go beyond the economic. For instance, the Agence France Presse story on the resignations that the popular Yahoo News service carried used the following headline: “Philippine Airlines cancels flights as pilots quit.” Strictly speaking, this was an accurate description. But a reader abroad, who may not have the time to read the story and thus find out that the cancellations affected only a handful of flights and two dozen pilots, may think the entire airline has suspended all operations. In other words, the headlines alone can damage PAL’s reputation, and with it the country’s image, too.

The Associated Press decided to use a humorous lead in one of its stories on the PAL crisis. “Good morning, passengers, and welcome aboard. We’re expecting clear skies today, but we’re out of pilots.”

Funny, ha-ha. But in fact the joke’s on the country, which is part of the name of Asia’s oldest airline. Like we said, the impact of news like this, while it will be felt most sharply in business and tourism, goes beyond the economic.

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