One after the other, the ‘legacy’ carriers endeavour to establish low cost subsidiaries and outsource pilot positions. In most cases, the new low cost company posts the sign “pilot unions not admitted”. This trend represents a serious attack to Captain’s Authority and consequently to flight safety.
Pilots consider Captain’s Authority as one of the most important elements of their profession. In legal terms, this “authority” is only described in the Tokyo Convention related to the Commander’s powers to restrain or disembark persons putting in danger the safety or the security of the flight or passengers aboard. However, it is commonly admitted, based on the maritime concept of the Captain’s authority, to broaden this concept to include the responsibility of the Pilot in Command to ensure the safety of the flight, aircraft, passengers and cargo. This responsibility is defined in the ICAO annexes and in the European Regulations.
Responsibility is the key word. Responsibility cannot be exerted without authority. The pilot in command should have the means and the freedom to take the appropriate decisions. This is not always the case.
When there is a problem, a pilot needs to have a lot of confidence in him/herself e.g. to divert to another airport or to delay a flight, making any number of passengers unhappy, and lead to the company maybe having to compensate them for delays. The backing of a pilot association in those cases is a necessity for the pilot, in case he/she is challenged by the company’s management on such a safety decision.
In many of the new low-cost companies there are no independent pilot unions. These companies tend to use contract pilots who depend entirely on their managements’ satisfaction to get their contracts to be renewed. Because of this, pilots do not have any protection against attempts from commercially driven or ill-informed managements to push pilots into actions that go against their professional judgment.
In these situations, pilots are completely vulnerable because they have to take on responsibilities without full authority. If pilots take the right safety decision they have to take into account that they run the risk of being disciplined or even fired because of disobeying management instructions. At the same time, they have the obligation to take decisions based on safety or they run the risk of being disciplined or fired because of non-compliance with safety regulations.
The airlines with “pilot unions not admitted” signs may think they save problems and money. In reality however, they take a step backwards in the history of aviation and air safety.
 Multilateral Convention on Offenses and Certain Other Acts Committed on Board Aircraft, signed in Tokyo on the 14 September 1963.