Is flying to crisis zones part of the pilot job?
By Alain Vanalderweireldt, BeCA President
Pilots from nearly every airline are or will be confronted to new go/no go decisions: accepting or refusing to fly to crisis zones, i.e. areas where conflicts or massive pandemics are developing. Just to name a few recent examples: Israel, Ukraine and African countries (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali and Guinea). Some airline managements consider it is “part of the pilot job” and their view on that question is that crews cannot refuse to fly to crisis zones. According to them, not accepting to operate such a flight would be considered as refusal to work. But, is this correct?
This strict “mission oriented” vision does not take into consideration the obligation for an employer to take care of his employees’ health and well-being. This basic principle is laid down in Belgian social legislation and the company Prevention and Protection committee is responsible for its implementation. This official body is entitled to produce advice and recommendations on any situation that can potentially affect employees’ health and well-being.
The contribution of pilot representatives within these committees is therefore of paramount importance. They must provide their company with well-documented arguments. By bypassing these recommendations, the employer may engage its responsibility. The difficulty however is to continuously produce relevant and up-to-date advice regarding risk areas operated by the airline.
No go zones vs. risk areas
No go zones are places where flights are restricted or prohibited, usually documented in NOTAMs. Any employee has the right to refuse a duty to a no go zone. In these cases, if a company wants to maintain its flight service, it will have to call for volunteers.
In case of emerging armed conflicts or terrorist threats, airline managements will refer to security assessments produced by their own security managers. Their role is to collect information (from National authorities, local security agents, other airlines, etc.) in order to provide a continuously updated risk evaluation to senior airline management. Interestingly, security managers are not directly responsible for their evaluation since they are not post-holders approved by their national CAA.
In case of pandemics, international organizations like WHO and travel advice from Belgian Authorities can be considered as references as the company doctor will have limited access to information.
What does BeCA recommend?
It is our firm standpoint that any pilot (or cabin crew) has the right to refuse to fly to a destination where there are objective health or security concerns. However, this option should not be left to pilots individually, but be part of a collective and well documented advice built and defended by pilot representatives within the company (or at sector level, in coordination with BeCA.
As safety professionals, we must also be aware that human activity and aviation are not risk free. We should therefore avoid falling into the trap of overreaction, which could unnecessarily harm our airlines’ financial situation. In turn, employers must adopt transparent and continuous communication with their pilots and crew representatives on the preventive and mitigation measures regarding operations to crisis zones.