This week has seen great excitement over the Belgian carrier Brussels Airlines, for whom Brussels airport is the hub. Many of us who travel for professional or private reasons use the services of this company, which was born after the collapse of SABENA. Brussels Airlines has been in difficulties for some years and has now been taken over by LUFTHANSA, just as it took over the Austrian and Swiss airlines. The concentration of airline companies under the major umbrella Networks STAR ALLIANCE, SKY Team and ONE WORLD was the direct result of the opening of the internal market in Europe, and of the so-called “open sky” agreements with the US. As a result, low-cost carriers like RYANAIR and EASYJET emerged, and are now competing (trough low prices and low standards) at European level with the former national carriers and aiming to dominate the market.
These “benefits” of the internal market have always been sold as being in the interest of the consumer who can fly sometimes for nearly nothing. The working conditions of those employed by these companies have never been of major interest however, unless the trade union movement has managed to campaign (e.g. the “Ryanair be fair” ITF campaign) to get improvements. RYANAIR in Belgium has recently agreed to at least integrate some minimum Belgian social standards when it comes to maternity and paternity leave. In this world of zero hour contracts in air transport and even worse, pilots who pay to be able to fly and keep their license valid, there are now working poor in all areas of the industry.
Last November we had hoped that the agreement on the European Pillar of Social Rights signed in Gothenburg would be a step in the right direction, but the airline sector shows how much is still to be done for the upward convergence of social standards when the market regulates itself. Unfortunately, with Lufthansa now developing – under the pressure of the market – its own low-cost EUROWINGS and seeking to develop synergies with BRUSSELS AIRLINES, the poison of nationalism is polluting the debate. “The Germans” - as if the Wehrmacht were about to cross the border again – want to absorb the “national carrier”, “le fleuron de l’industrie belge”. We should not laugh, but shout and say stop this dangerous nonsense! Maybe it is just market pressure and management failures, maybe RYANAIR’s slots at Brussels Airport have also weakened the Belgium company for the sake of “competition” and growth of the airport.
These examples are further proof of the failures of a mantra that is all about growth and competition, without regulating social standards. And instead of discussing working and employment conditions the debate gets a poisonous nationalistic dimension. Once you understand exactly what the internal market and deregulation mean and what are the risks in Europe, just think when you chose your carrier for the next flight and fasten your seat belt!