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Leslie: Working Abroad

Sometimes, unemployment is worse than not getting paid


October 1, 2007
By Steve Leslie

One door closes and another door opens. Such is the nature of the
aviation industry. In early November, Air Atlanta advised me that I was
being reassigned to Jeddah to fly the Hajj – the annual Muslim
pilgrimage to Mecca. Although I was not scheduled to leave for Jeddah
until early January, my life as a contract pilot had unexpectedly taken
on new meaning. It seemed that a higher power had decided my time would
be better served somewhere else than with Southern Winds in Argentina.

Reflecting
on the last eight months, it is not easy to choose the one high point
that exists in my mind. There have been a great many highlights from
‘down under’, but there have also been some occasions that made me stop
and ponder how lucky we are. To explain would be to recall some very
personal anecdotes and to consider the current state of the airline
industry.

In 2001, when the world economy went into a tailspin,
Southern Winds was but one Argentine carrier that barely survived the
downturn. Overnight, the Southern Winds Dash 8 and CRJ fleet shrank to
only four aircraft, with some 110 pilots furloughed and many more
flight attendants. In the summer of 2002, Air Atlanta stepped in to
operate the Southern Winds B767-300ER fleet. Even so, the company has
still lingered on the verge of collapse – until recently. In September
the Argentine government came to the rescue, providing financial relief
in the form of loan guarantees and tax breaks. Some of my Argentine
colleagues have confided that for the first time in years there is
optimism for the future. The financial guarantees allowed Southern
Winds to take delivery of an additional B767-300ER in December. Shortly
after delivery, service from Buenos Aires to Mexico City will be
initiated. For the many furloughed Argentine pilots and flight
attendants this was indeed a Christmas present.

Nevertheless,
some underlying problems remain. The government bailout did almost
nothing to correct the huge disparity in wages. The difference is so
large that the contract pilot earns five to six times the salary of a
Southern Winds pilot! Flight attendants are in the same boat, earning a
mere pittance compared to a junior Air Canada attendant. Furthermore,
Southern Winds employees are constantly fighting to collect on their
earnings and benefits. In recent months, the company has avoided
payment of salaries due to its financial predicament. In some cases, it
took several weeks before employees were paid, if at all. Yet they
continued to work. For the employees, unemployment is a worse prospect
than not getting paid.

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