Jhe General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association (Balpa) is a reluctant saber fanatic. Having been turned away from flying warplanes as a youth in the RAF, Martin Chalk now finds himself having to prime his union’s primary weapon at his former employer.
Balpa members at British Airways are angry – and a second pilot strike in three years could be on the cards. After leaving BA as captain of the world’s biggest superjumbo, the A380, at the start of the pandemic, Chalk must now guide a new set of loads through more turbulence.
For Chalk, his job should be “much more of a secretary than a general”. After a year in the job, he quickly learns the hurdles unions face under labor law – but says he would step down anyway if he thought “a truly unionized person” could do better.
He admires railroad union leader Mick Lynch, but says, “Balpa is different. Most of its 10,000 members are used to running their own cockpit show and, he adds, “Pilots don’t like being told how to do things.”
Industrial relations clearly frustrates him. “Our members are the oldest stakeholders of any airline,” he says. “They rarely leave – they’re just as interested in long-term profitability as the business is. CEOs and senior executives come and go.
With the precise, measured tones of a former RAF and BA pilot – his Devon accent ringing at times – Chalk admits he was the beneficiary of another era: he joined BA when his steady career progression and its hierarchy
Family Married since 1990, with two adult children.
Education Torquay Boys’ Grammar; military training in the RAF; later started studying for a Masters in Human Resource Management at Keele University.
Pay £92,000 plus car – ‘less than half of what I was as a driver’.
Last holidays Hasn’t been abroad since the pandemic – a stay at home in Norfolk, as well as walks in the Malvern Hills and Derbyshire.
Best advice ever given “Always seek to add more than you take away.”
Biggest Career Mistake “I had an enchanting career and only had to make a few decisions” – joining the RAF and joining BA, which he does not regret.
Word he abuses “No. Any time you use no, that’s overuse. Ideally, you would never say no.
how he relaxes Walking and watching rugby: “I’m a good
mad about rugby.
guaranteed pilots a solid, well-paid job for life. He uses the word honorable a lot – and clearly thinks BA hasn’t been late.
Pilots volunteered to take unpaid leave at the start of the pandemic, he says, on the promise that BA would use any leave scheme when the government launched it – something the airline later refused to do for many months. A particular sore point is the “Delta” – a pay deduction agreed by pilots during Covid to minimize planned redundancies. Given the rebound and the current job market, keeping the pilots seems like a good business decision – but Balpa members are still losing 4-10% of their pay for saving the airline from itself. “It’s infuriating,” 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 due to how they treated staff during the pandemic. No other airline has suggested laying off and rehiring all of its staff. BA did.
He remains happy with a deal Balpa struck with easyJet to avoid layoffs, but doesn’t buy the idea of Ryanair reaping the rewards of better treatment of staff during the pandemic. “They are certainly softening – but their business model [is] inclined to shrink and grow. 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 drivers have been told to continue accepting Covid-enforced cuts as “morally bankrupt”.
Across aviation, 2022 has brought a tumultuous return to mass flying, with labor shortages leading to widespread flight queues, delays and cancellations. Financially, pilots can be a world apart from people airports and airlines are struggling to recruit, including baggage handlers, ramp agents and check-in staff whose companies have ‘lowered terms and conditions’ to the point where people are paid barely minimum wage on anti-social hours, often zero hours”.
But there is common ground, says Chalk: “Pilots are very intolerant 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 between the earnings gains and losses of the super-rich since 2008, and adds: “All those who live month to month to pay our mortgages need a raise.”
In his day, he was proud to work for BA. “When you told people, they were jealous. Now they tell you the latest story of losing their bag, being late or having their flight canceled, and that doesn’t make you happy. good,” he said.
BA, for its part, says it remains “committed to engaging with the union to ensure our pilots benefit as the company recovers from the pandemic.” He said his pilots – who earn an average annual salary of £125,000 – have received a 5% bonus this year, and added: “We want to work with Balpa so we can find a way forward together.”
Paid battles aside, Balpa also has a large technical, training, and security wing – currently conducting more research to highlight the risk of fatigue. Wizz Air chief executive József Váradi this year chastised pilots who don’t work when “tired”, but Chalk insists: “It’s important and honorable work – if it’s clear from our friends of Wizz that not everyone shares our concern”.
Flying is safer than taking a bath, he says, but warns: ‘On my last job, we took 350 tonnes of aircraft and 180 tonnes of kerosene 12km into the air, where it was cooler 70°C, often 300mph winds – we flew for 14 hours and landed halfway around the world with 550 people. The security aspect does not come by chance.
The pilots are, he says, “incredible rule-followers, questioning every rule they follow.” They have a role, he says, as the conscience of the aviation industry for safety – and on another, deeper issue, for the environment.
Its members span the “full spectrum…from climate deniers to Extinction Rebellion supporters.” But, he says, it’s clear that burning fossil fuels is “a millstone” for aviation to tackle. “They want to think that their work is pro-humanity and not against humanity. We want our industry to be honorable.
Aviation powered by solar and wind power is still a long way off, he admits. That’s why he says Balpa focuses on contrails — water vapor that can dissipate or form an additional blanket to trap heat, depending on when and where planes fly.
The military and the Met Office can already identify areas of the sky where contrails will form clouds, he says. Contrails are estimated to enhance the climatic effects of CO2 between 30% and 70%, and pilots should carry out work to remedy this: “It is something that can be done now. One thing we cannot do now is to stop burning kerosene.
“We don’t agree with greenwashers or hairshirters. Aviation is good. Connecting people is good. These things improve human life. We need to move towards guilt-free aviation.
So does he feel guilty for his own theft? “There is rarely absolute good. I did a good job with a lot of positive benefits. I now realize that part of it was polluting, and I regret it. It wasn’t my fault. I spent a lot of time with Balpa trying to avoid this negative.