A new study has detected a dramatic rise in self employment and zero-hours contracts among pilots on European aircraft, which it describes as a "race to the bottom".

According to the survey of over 6,600 pilots entitled ‘Atypical Employment in Aviation’, more than one in six pilots in Europe are "atypical" employees - working through a temporary work agency, self-employed, or on a zero-hours contract with no minimum pay guaranteed.

The authors say such arrangements raise issues regarding where taxes and social security are paid, and are rendering the position of many pilots "increasingly precarious".

According to the European Sectoral Social Dialogue for Civil Aviation, which commissioned the study,  casualisation of aviation labour not only has implications for avoidance of social security and taxes, but can also raise serious concerns about safety where insecure pilots may be afraid to raise issues.

The study found that 70% of all self-employed pilots work for a low-fares airline, but that self employment is sometimes used "to disguise what is in reality regular employment".

It says this distorts the aviation market, by creating an unfair competitive advantage for those airlines relying on such practices.

Researchers found younger pilots fare worst, with 40% of pilots under 30 self-employed, on zero-hours contracts, or working through a temporary employment agency.

In some situations, they are trapped in "pay-to-fly" schemes, where they pay the airline to fly its aircraft in order to gain flight experience.

The authors describe this as abhorrent financial exploitation, which could create potential conflicts where pilots feel insecure about raising potential safety issues.

Self-employment 'irrefutably relevant' within Irish industry

Referring specifically to Ireland, the report says the impact of bogus self-employment appears to be significant, and that decreasing labour conditions are aggravated by a lack of trade union recognition.

It says its concerns about agency work and self-employment are "irrefutably relevant" within the Irish aviation industry, as respondents indicated 70% of pilots at Ryanair are self-employed and provide services to the airline via UK-based crew agencies.

The study added because of the extreme prevalence of intermediary temporary employment agencies in Ryanair's business model, it appears the position of pilots is becoming increasingly "precarious".

However, it notes the use of temporary agency contracts seems to be increasing among Aer Lingus subsidiaries.

It also criticised Ryanair's application process for the "constant imposition of payable fees in order to be allowed to partake in the recruitment process", with a €15 fee to download the online application form, and a further €35 fee to submit it. The training fee is €28,500, which is payable in advance.

The study states since 2009 Ryanair had offset losses during the slow winter season by getting pilots and cabin crew to work maximum flight and duty hours in the summer, and dismissing them in the winter season.

The authors criticised loopholes in existing legislation across Europe, which makes enforcement difficult.

They call for a strengthened principle regarding the "home base" for air crew, describing it as the key criterion towards a common definition of the workplace in labour and social security laws.

They also advocate reform of social security legislation, labour rules and safety regulations to ensure that employment models and management modes do not harm fair competition, nor damage the wellbeing or safety of passengers and crew. 

The study was prepared by academics linked to the university of Ghent based on a survey of over 6,600 pilots.

It was funded by the European Commission and was presented at a conference in Paris.

Ryanair's Chief Marketing Officer Kenny Jacobs dismissed the findings of the report, saying there were bogus groups that were trying to make noise and make false claims.