Employment types

Until a few years ago, direct permanent employment contracts with the airline were the norm. This has changed dramatically in the past years. Self-employment, temporary contracts, working through recruitment agencies, or on zero-hour contracts are now the reality for many pilots in Europe. The study on “Atypical employment in aviation” (Ghent University, 2015) reveals that more than one in six pilots in Europe are atypically employed.

More than 1 pilot out of 6 is under ‘atypical’ employment

i.e. working through a temporary work agency, as self-employed, or on a zero-hour contract with no minimum pay guaranteed.

7 out of 10 of all self-employed pilots work for a low fares airline


Young pilots

40% of 20-30 year old pilots are flying without being directly employed by the airline


Pilots in low cost airlines

In low cost airlines only half of the pilots are directly employed (53%)

Source: Study on Atypical Employment in Aviation, Ghent University

Almost 40% of the surveyed 20-30 year olds did not have a direct employment contract with the airline they were flying for. This is a very concerning trend and must be kept in mind when you decide whether to go for a career as a pilot.

Atypical employment means “indirect” and/or “temporary” jobs. Sometimes these contractual schemes include a third party intermediary, agency or broker that acts as an employer for the pilot and as a labour provider for the airline. The legal forms of atypical employment and the attached rules differ from one European country to another (otherwise we would speak about illegal work). In first place these schemes were deemed to respond to specific demands of flexibility, as much from the employer as from the employee. Today, they are often used by the employers mainly to reduce labour costs.

Such atypical employment often means pilots need to take care of social security and pension contributions themselves. It means also no holiday pay, no sick pay and no maternity or parental leave. Lack of job security is a challenge that lies ahead for the majority of young pilots today.

These are the most used forms of atypical employment in aviation:

Agency work

The pilot is not hired by the airline, but by an agency. Sometimes the agency is based in a different European country. The pilot can be put under contract by the agency or also be requested to register as a self-employed worker (see explanation below). In the end, the airline does not have a direct link (and therefore does not have legal obligations) with the pilot.


A self-employed worker (or freelancer) is someone who provides work in his/her own account to (usually) more than one user (client), in exchange for a payment. This is often the case, for example, for a plumber, an electrician, but also for a doctor with his/her own practice. There are licensed pilots, especially at the end of their career and in the charter sector, who freely decide to work this way and to “sell” their services to an airline for a very limited amount of time or even for single flights. But they are a small minority. The majority of self-employed pilots in Europe have been pushed in that position by an airline which is interested in their services but tries to avoid social, fiscal and labour obligations linked to an employment contract. Although not strictly illegal, this status is under thorough investigation by authorities of many European countries (e.g. France, Italy, Belgium, Germany).

In light of the findings above, the EU Commission initiated a thorough research into the employment and working conditions of aircrew in Europe. This led to the publishing of the so-called ‘Ricardo Study’ on employment and working conditions in 2019.

Key numbers from the research not only backed up those already highlighted by Ghent University but also showed atypical employement in aviation was increasing:

1 pilot out of 5

is atypically employed, according to the latest study.


of pilots are self-employed

This figure varies among countries, type of air carrier and business model. The majority (88%) are contracted through an intermediary and 75% of all self-employed work for a low-cost carrier. The self-employment “champions” are Ryanair with almost 60% of its pilots being ‘self-employed’, followed by Wizzair (3.6%). But the researchers are doubting if even a small number of those pilots are genuinely ‘self-employed’.


of self-employment in aviation is fake

The vast majority of self-employed pilots – 90% – are not free to work for more than one airline in parallel, and 93% have no flexibility to decide when or how many hours to fly. Both are major criteria when defining if someone is indeed genuinely self-employed. This effectively means that almost all self-employed pilots are misclassified regular employees.


of European pilot are hired or working through an intermediary or a broker

The study suggests that given the high level of complexity of defining if a broker agency is a Temporary Work Agency (in the sense of the EU Directive 2008/104/EC), it is likely that brokers are not compliant with EU and national laws. They do not, or only rarely respect EU Posted Workers rules, they provide bogus self-employed crew to their client airlines or offer consecutive short-term employment contracts to avoid hiring crew on a direct, long-term basis.


of all pilots have been involved in pay-to-fly schemes

whereby young pilots pay the airline for the privilege of gaining flight experience on its aircraft during regular revenue-earning flights. The research shows that pay-to-fly is more common among charter airlines (12%) and low-cost air carriers (8%), compared to 3% of pilots flying for traditional scheduled air carriers.

Most large airlines in Europe do not hire pilots on atypical contracts but still offer direct permanent employment contracts. These facts need to be considered when choosing the proper flight school & the first employer.

The large airlines generally have an affiliated school in their country, whilst other schools mostly supply other airlines like many low cost airlines offering such atypical contracts.