Flying against the wind: How did thousands of Egyptian pilots end up jobless

Menan Khater
14 Min Read
Online ticket purchases for airlines in Egypt amounts to $1.9bn, out of $11bn in the Arab region. (AFP Photo)
A list of the accepted pilots in the latest announcement by EgyptAir, results were announced in 2013 (Photo handout to DNE)
A list of the accepted pilots in the latest announcement by EgyptAir, results were announced in 2013 (Photo handout to DNE)

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking”; this is the way Mohamed had always dreamt of introducing himself to others, as a pilot greeting his passengers. But after he finished his aviation studies in Cairo, instead he ended up using the microphone to introduce himself as a call centre representative, to greet often disgruntled customers.

Mohamed S, 27, is one of nearly 1,200 unemployed pilots in Egypt, according to the aviation ministry’s unemployed pilots committee spokesperson Mohamed Hindawy. Their number exceeds employed pilots in EgyptAir, who make up about 850 pilots. An average of 70 persons graduate each year from the aviation academy in Egypt, while hundreds of others study in different countries abroad, is the US being the most common of them.

Since the latest call for applicants by the national airlines EgyptAir in 2012, the opportunities for the following batches of aviation graduates started to become very grim, as EgyptAir stopped calling for more applicants and private airlines in Egypt stopped hiring more graduates.

The ailing economy in the post-25 January Revolution period and its impact on the dynamics of flights in Egypt is believed to be the main cause behind the pilots’ looming unemployment crisis, according to officials. However, many of the unemployed pilots claim that corruption in hiring and procrastination from the officials’ side to contain the crisis are the main factors behind their status.

At least 250 EgyptAir pilots proposed a mass resignation earlier in May. The pilots were demanding a 25% increase in their salaries, which they said have not increased in 10 years, given that the aviation ministry’s code of conduct states that pilots’ salaries should increase annually by 5%. Additionally many of them said they are offered better job opportunities abroad.

The resignations were rejected by the company, and received negative and non-empathetic reactions by other parties in the aviation field. In an official statement by EgyptAir in response to the resignations, they said: “The flights are ongoing and there are no delays despite the resignations. EgyptAir is a vital facility and it is illegal to disrupt it.”

Aviation Minister Hossam Kamal commented: “This is a sudden, inconvenient and unjustified movement.” Meanwhile, the aviation syndicate proposed a lawsuit to the State Council in objection to the lengthy working hours for pilots, often exceeding 14 hours per day.

The unemployed pilots’ numbers have been doubling every year, however the recent mass resignations of the EgyptAir pilots and a controversial Indonesia visit by syndicate representatives in April, supposedly to export unemployed pilots out there but nonetheless failing to meet its goals, ignited the unemployed pilots to voice their concerns and escalate their demands to higher levels.

On Saturday, a group of unemployed pilots gathered at the Aviation Syndicate in preparation for a protest against the syndicate and their unemployment.

Islam Adel, an unemployed pilot and coordinator between the syndicate and the pilots for their attempted sit-in, said: “We do not want anyone to exploit our peaceful demands, that is why we applied for a security approval to the sit-in, but it was refused.”

According to Adel, the interior ministry required from them a list of people who are willing to participate, an approval from the syndicate and the pilots’ demands. The list included all non-working pilots, but security personnel required them to list only members in the syndicate.

“We cut the list to only 10 names, even though it is a sit-in for non-working pilots not syndicate members,” Adel added.

He further explained: “It was very hard for us to get an approval from the syndicate; they utterly disapprove the whole protest thing. They just want to tear us apart so our voices will not be heard. But we will keep on applying for the approval until we are able to hold the sit-in.”

Mohamed Hindawi, an unemployed pilot who graduated 16 years ago, and spokesperson of the unemployed pilots group said: “The syndicate’s visit to Indonesia did not include a single representative of the unemployed pilots. This is our main concern, employed pilots would never care about our cause as much we do.”

According to Hindawy, the representatives did not meet anyone during their visit or make any efforts to negotiate for the unemployed pilots’ rights. He also claimed they went on a different date than previously scheduled.

“They came back to tell us you need at least 250 hours of flying as previous experience, which was stating the obvious. This is why we have been struggling to find a job opportunity because we do not have any experience in hours of commercial aviation,” he said.

30 of the accepted pilots were relatives of working EgyptAir pilots.  (Photo handout to DNE)
30 of the accepted pilots were relatives of working EgyptAir pilots.
(Photo handout to DNE)

“I resigned a week ago from the syndicate and I explained the obstacles and hurdles aviation graduates face,” said Moataz Abdel-Moaty, a member of the aviation syndicate who resigned a week ago.

“We have been following up on this Indonesia project from years ago, since we had only 400 unemployed pilots. We warned that the problem will soon get more complicated if it is not solved soon,” he added.

According to Abdel-Moaty, the recent Indonesia visit by the syndicate could have achieved much better results if the talks were on the ministerial level.

“The syndicate works in a very slow dynamic, with a very routine-like system,” he said. “We have qualified pilots, and many solutions to employ them but we first need to get rid of the bureaucracy and corruption.”

An official, who refused to disclose his position or his name, told Daily News Egypt: “There have been ongoing attempts by the syndicate and the ministry to solve the pilots’ unemployment crisis, but they did not achieve their expected results.”

Indonesia is notoriously risky in aviation due to its frequent plane crashes. It is also one of the markets that have a huge shortage in pilots. “I do not [care to] work at all in Indonesia or any country abroad, to get a salary or not; what I really need at the beginning of my career is flying hours,” one of the unemployed pilots said.

Before its visit, the syndicate was required to meet six companies in Indonesia based on their airplanes types and compatibility with Egyptian personnel.  According to the official, the embassy postponed the dates until the six companies approved the meetings.

In 2013, the Indonesian Ministry of Transportation tightened its rules on validating the licence of any non-Indonesian pilot, to have at least 250 hours of flying, to increase the aviation safety in the country and eliminate the increasing number of plane crashes, in addition to giving priority to Indonesian aviation graduates.

In January, the syndicate approached the EgyptAir training centre, which gives type rating and simulation training for aviation graduates, to give non-working syndicate members a 50% discount. About 105 pilots applied and received the training, which slightly narrowed the gap between them and the aviation job market, but did not really empower them to find a job opportunity.

The Ministry of Aviation has also approached the Ministry of Administrative Development to allocate aviation graduates and non-working pilots in administrative positions, instead of hiring graduates from other majors and with no aviation background. But according to the official, the decision is still pending as it needs to be compatible with the state laws in job allocation.

Furthermore, the ministry urged private airline Cairo Aviation to hire only Egyptian pilots, with the consequence of not renewing its license if it does not comply. However the company decided to hire Egyptians who are former retired air force pilots, instead of recent aviation graduates, the official said.

The ministry, alongside the syndicate, is currently studying a proposal for training unemployed pilots in the national airlines, while also engaging private airlines in the training expenses.

EgyptAir has stopped announcing more calls for pilots since 2012. Nearly 480 applied for the last call, of whom 53 were accepted and 43 others were put on the waiting list. 30 of the accepted pilots were relatives of employed personnel in EgyptAir.

“I prepared a lot and studied hard once I saw the announcement. I felt more encouraged after the interview was much easier than what I expected and prepared for,” Mohamed S said.

“After the results were announced and I saw how they selected younger applicants who have inside contacts, I was depressed. I spent a very long time afterwards doing nothing until I became too bored to stay at home. I worked then in a PR and advertising company, and then moved to the customer service department of Vodafone, but I had to leave it because it hurt my ears and I did not want to blow any opportunities of being able to fly again. Now I’m back to searching for jobs, any jobs expect customer service,” he said.

According to unemployed pilots spokesperson Hindawy, all EgyptAir announcements were corrupt, but this latest one in particular provoked many negative responses as “the political situation before the 2011 uprising was somehow more stable, there were no urging topics such as the ones we witness nowadays,” he said.

Online ticket purchases for airlines in Egypt amounts to $1.9bn, out of $11bn in the Arab region. (AFP Photo)
(AFP Photo)

The situation in private airlines is not much better. “I went to the private airlines, asked them if I could pay for my training and in return they would secure me a job opportunity in the company after the training, but they refused,” one of the unemployed pilots said.  The paid route training expenses in private companies in Egypt amounts to up to EGP 200,000 while simulation and type rating can be about EGP 120,000.

Hassan Aziz, director of Cairo Aviation private airline said: “I know our capabilities are not satisfying unemployed pilots; we have only three jets in Al-Masriya airlines.”

“What we need is new jets to assimilate the number of unemployed pilots, and we have indeed proceeded in buying the fourth jet for Al-Masriyah and other private companies will but new jets soon as well,” he said.

According to Aziz, the unemployed pilots are “oppressed”, and he described them as a “national wealth” that should be empowered not wasted. He suggested that the national airlines should give them the needed training, and high level talks should be held to employ them in other countries, such as the Gulf states.

“If EgyptAir reconsidered its fuel calculations it could reduce about EGP 3bn to 4bn [of its expenditures],” according to Abdel-Moaty. “Egypt is a gate for African passengers going to Europe. It is hard to believe that Ethiopia, which has less experience in aviation, has about 200 jets, while we have only less than a hundred.  We need to have at least 300 or 400 jets, because the more jets we have the more passengers we could get and the easier it is for pilots to find job opportunities.”


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Politics and investigative reporter for Daily News Egypt. Initiator and lead instructor of DNE's special reporting project for university students 'What Lies Beyond.' Facebook:
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