The general secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) is a reluctant sabre rattler. Having been steered away from flying warplanes as a youth in the RAF, Martin Chalk now finds himself having to prime his union’s main weapon in the direction of his former employer.
Balpa members at British Airways are angry – and a second pilots’ strike in three years could be on the cards. After stepping down from BA as a captain of the world’s biggest superjumbo, the A380, at the start of the pandemic, Chalk must now guide a new set of charges through more turbulence.
For Chalk, his job should be “much more of a secretary than a general”. After a year in post, he is learning fast about the hurdles put in the way of unions under labour laws – but says he would still step aside if he thought “a proper union person” could do better.
He admires the rail union leader Mick Lynch, but says: “Balpa is different.” Most of its 10,000 members are used to running their own show in the cockpit and, he adds: “Pilots don’t take kindly to being told how to do things.”
Industrial relations clearly frustrate him. “Our members are the longest-serving stakeholders in any airline,” he says. “They rarely leave – they are just as interested in long-term profitability as the company is. Chief executives and senior managers come and go.”
With the precise and measured tones of an ex-RAF and BA pilot – his Devon accent occasionally ringing through – Chalk admits he was the beneficiary of another era: he joined BA when its stable career progression and hierarchy
Family Married since 1990, with two adult children.
Education Torquay Boys’ Grammar; military training in the RAF; later started studying for a master’s in human resource management at Keele University.
Pay £92k plus car – “less than half of what I was on as a pilot”.
Last holidays Has not been abroad since the pandemic – a home stay in Norfolk, plus walking in the Malvern hills and Derbyshire.
Best advice he’s been given “Always seek to add more than you take away.”
Biggest career mistake “I’ve had a charmed career, and only had to make a couple of decisions” – to join the RAF and to join BA, neither of which he regrets.
Word he overuses “No. Whenever you use no it’s an overuse. Ideally, you would never say no.”
How he relaxes Walking, and watching rugby: “I’m a proper
guaranteed pilots a solid, well-paid job for life. He uses the word honourable a lot – and clearly thinks BA has not been of late.
Pilots volunteered to take unpaid leave at the start of pandemic, he says, on the promise that BA would use any furlough scheme when the government launched it – something the airline then refused to do for many months. A particular sore point is the “Delta” – a pay deduction agreed by pilots during Covid to minimise planned redundancies. Given the rebound and the labour market now, keeping on the pilots looks a good business decision – but Balpa members are still losing 4-10% of their wages for saving the airline from itself. “It’s galling,” says Chalk.
Covid, he says, was a useful context “to drive through changes that would have been more difficult under normal circumstances. I wonder how many of their challenges now are down to how they treated staff in the pandemic. No other airline suggested firing and rehiring all their staff. BA did.”
He remains pleased with a deal Balpa struck with easyJet to head off redundancies, but does not buy the idea that Ryanair is reaping the rewards of treating staff better during the pandemic. “They are certainly mellowing – but their business model [is] leant to shrinking and growing.” The airline already relied more on agency workers and contracts than its competitors. Chalk describes Michael O’Leary’s return to full pay this year as chief executive while pilots were asked to keep taking Covid-enforced cuts as “morally bankrupt”.
Across aviation, 2022 has brought a tumultuous return to mass flying, with labour shortages leading to widespread queues, delays and flight cancellations. Financially, pilots may be a world apart from the people airports and airlines are struggling to recruit, including baggage handlers, ramp agents and check-in staff whose companies have “driven down terms and conditions to the point where people are being paid barely the minimum wage on antisocial hours, zero hours often”.
But there is common ground, Chalk says: “Pilots are very intolerant of, and disappointed in, the leadership of companies that put them in such negative places.” He suggests the UK needs a 10% wealth tax to reverse the £6 trillion imbalance in super-rich gains and wage losses since 2008, and adds: “Everyone who lives month-to-month to pay our mortgages needs a pay rise.”
In his time, he was proud to work for BA. “When you told people, they were jealous. Now they regale you with the last story of having lost their bag, been late, or had their flight cancelled, and that doesn’t make you feel good,” he says.
BA, for its part, says it remains “committed to engaging with the union to make sure that our pilots benefit as the business recovers from the pandemic”. It said its pilots – who earn an average annual salary of £125,000 – were given a 5% bonus payment this year, and added: “We want to work with Balpa so that jointly we can find a way forward.”
Pay battles aside, Balpa also has a large technical, training and safety wing – currently conducting more research to highlight the risk of fatigue. Wizz Air’s chief executive József Váradi this year berated pilots for not working when “tired”, but Chalk insists: “That is an important, honourable piece of work – if it is clear from our friends at Wizz that not everyone shares our concern.”
Flying is safer than taking a bath, he says, but cautions: “On my last job, we took 350 tonnes of aeroplane and 180 tonnes of kerosene 12km into the air, where it was minus 70C, often 300mph winds – we flew for 14 hours and landed on the other side of the world with 550 people. The safety aspect doesn’t come by chance.”
Pilots are, he says, “incredible rule followers, who question every rule they follow”. They have a role, he says, as the aviation industry’s conscience for safety – and on another, more profound question, for the environment.
His members occupy the “full spectrum … climate deniers to Extinction Rebellion sympathisers”. But, he says, it is clear that burning fossil fuel is “a millstone” that aviation needs to address. “They want to think their work is pro-humanity and not against humanity. We want our industry to be honourable.”
Aviation powered by solar and wind is a long way off, he admits. That’s why he says Balpa is focusing on contrails – the water vapour that can either dissipate or form an additional blanket to trap heat, depending on when and where planes fly.
The military and Met Office can already pinpoint areas of sky where contrails will form clouds, he says. Contrails are estimated to increase the climate effects of CO2 from aviation by between 30% and 70%, and pilots should lead work to address this: “It’s something that can be done now. One thing we cannot do right now is stop burning kerosene.
“We don’t agree with the greenwashers or the hairshirters. Aviation is good. Connecting people is good. These things enhance human life. We need to move towards guilt-free aviation.”
So does he feel guilty about his own flying? “There’s rarely unmitigated good. I did a good job with lots of positive benefits. I now realise that part of it was polluting, and I regret that. That wasn’t my fault. I’ve spent a lot of time with Balpa trying to obviate that negative.”