A Worker-Led Approach – Shaping the Future of Aviation

1 Mar, 2023

A Worker-Led Approach – Shaping the Future of Aviation: Workshop Summary from February 16th

In a world of climate crisis, it is essential to include workers’ voices in the necessary just transition of our society. Just recently, the European Transport Workers’ Federation published the report “Landing Desirable Jobs” arguing strongly for a long-term sustainability perspective and a plan for decarbonisation of the aviation industry led by its heart: its workers. Workers’ Assemblies (inspired by Citizen Assemblies) are one way of encouraging this participation.

Safe Landing, Transport & Environment, and Stay Grounded organised an online workshop on February 16th 2023, inviting aviation workers to have an exchange about their future and job security. The aim was to bring together workers across companies and trade unions from different countries to share experiences, network and strategise. 

The session was kicked off by an hour of presentations from speakers, followed by an hour of Q&A, break-out room discussions and feedback. A video recording can be found here.



1. The aviation sector faces significant challenges

Starting off, Carlos Lopez de la Osa (Transport & Environment), gave an overview of the challenges facing the sector. Aviation’s reliance on risky strategies (offsets, cheap abundant energy, unprecedented levels of technological progress) for continued air traffic growth creates a fragile sector, leaving its workers highly exposed to a wide variety of shocks (climate risks, high energy prices, and energy scarcity). This leads to questions about the acceptability of current scenarios, and the need to imagine and build together the future we want for the aviation industry.  

2. Workers want sustainable, desirable jobs for the future

Mila Shamku then provided an overview of the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF)’s latest paper “Landing Desirable Jobs”. The ETF wants sustainable, desirable jobs for the future: jobs that are healthy to perform, pay living wages and provide quality working conditions. These jobs need to go hand in hand with reducing the industry’s impact on the environment while fostering a work environment characterised by safety, just culture and democratic participation of workers. In particular, the ETF advocates for ‘Just Transition Committees’ which are especially important in locations where aviation is a major employer (e.g. airport towns).

3. Workers have means to determine socially useful production 

The third presentation was from Sam Mason (Public & Commercial Services Trade Union, UK): who discussed her work around the New Lucas Plan.  This sets out to weigh in on the future of the sector with a social and environmental vision, via an inclusive approach valuing the diverse capacities of different types of workers. In this way it aims to repurpose workers’ skills towards socially useful production and climate-friendly jobs. This approach can help to produce plans for new jobs for local areas, such as at a community or city scale. For instance, the Green New Deal for Gatwick report looked at exactly this.

4. Workers’ Assemblies can help to raise worker-led alternatives

Last to present was Finlay Asher from Safe Landing who presented the concept of Aviation Workers’ Assemblies. The problem this aims to solve is the difference in time horizon and priorities between aviation business leaders, who currently dictate industry sustainability strategies, and aviation workers who wish to have secure careers lasting decades and will be impacted the most if those industry strategies turn out to be flawed. Given the issues and solutions are complex, the challenge is how to robustly critique those strategies in an inclusive way and produce worker-led alternatives. The solution proposed is the facilitation of deliberative democracy within trade unions, based on the Citizens’ Assemblies approach. This is a concept that Safe Landing is currently promoting with various aviation-related trade unions in the UK, and the group is looking to support workers in other countries who would like to propose this approach with trade unions in their regions.


Interactive Discussion

Workers and the industry are under pressure

The presentations were followed by a lively-discussion during the Q&A, break-out rooms and feedback sessions. It was widely acknowledged that the strategy of “green aviation” (= technology and fuel-based solutions) will take too long to deliver to reduce industry emissions in time, if we are to stay within 1.5°C of global warming

It was noted that circumstances for many aviation workers are already precarious, as they’re constantly struggling against efficiency and automation demands of a profit-driven industry looking for shareholder returns. This results in a ‘backs against the wall’ struggle, even without climate change. It’s tempting for workers to think that air traffic growth may offset job losses due to efficiency. 

Job transition prospects hold promise as well as limitations

Aviation should also be seen within the broader context, ideally that of an integrated transport system. However it was noted that opportunities for transition differ across regions: in some large countries such as Argentina, it is challenging to find alternatives to air transport – if an aviation worker loses their job, the transition to another mode of transport may be difficult. In Poland, too, it has proven difficult to discuss sustainability policies – and it’s recommended that messaging focus on ‘economics’ rather than ‘environment’. Transferring jobs from aviation to rail may not be easy due to different worker skills and competencies required. The example of “pilots switching to driving trains” isn’t very helpful; alternatives must be viable and realistic for workers.

For example, it can be more beneficial to talk about minimising out-of-sector transitions through early transformation within the sector to decarbonise. Not only will this minimise over-capacity of aviation assets, and reduce the risk of an industry crash where workers would be forced to transition – but it will also provide employment co-benefits in terms of more rapid technology R&D and modifying existing aerospace factories and aviation infrastructure for the new technology. Changes to how we travel, for instance airlines flying slower in smaller, shorter-range aircraft, can also provide a boost to employment while still also limiting or reducing total air miles and emissions. 

Worker-led engagement is needed across all levels, to influence aviation’s future

Now is the time to factor in climate change, and see it as an opportunity to protect and secure jobs, rather than a threat. This is a cause for optimism, but will need worker engagement to challenge false solutions and push for real, viable solutions that will also deliver increased and more sustainable employment benefits. 

On engagement within trade unions, it was mentioned that they have power as representative, democratic bodies that can join together – but some are open-minded, while others are more conservative. At branch level the climate discussion seems quite limited, with more of an immediate, local focus on pay/conditions etc. It can seem that some of the climate issues are quite high-level and national or global issues outside of the usual trade union remit. It feels like politics is key to creating good policies to steer the aviation industry’s direction on sustainability, and workers/unions need to find ways to lobby politicians on this.

Standing in the way of this are industry executives who have extensive resources to convince people (public, politicians and unions) of their arguments and resist spending on transformational change in favour of short-term growth plans. We need to speak to politicians from a worker perspective, and show them that significant numbers of workers believe that industry leadership plans are dangerous both economically and for workers’ jobs.

This is where the Aviation Workers’ Assembly idea comes in – by giving workers the time and space to critique business leaders’ plans and develop alternative worker-led proposals, we can produce robust recommendations to inform union strategy and lobbying positions.   


Next Steps

The discussion will continue on this issue, and we’re on the lookout for more aviation workers, from different roles, countries and trade unions to work together to progress this thinking. 

Do you want to get involved?  

If so, contact Finlay Asher of Safe Landing at: [email protected] 

In addition, fill in this form to indicate your interest in joining the global working group.

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