Boeing Layoffs Affect Line-Assist Pilots, Drawing Union’s Ire

Boeing 787
Credit: Boeing

Boeing plans to eliminate a group of in-house training pilots dedicated to helping operators introduce new aircraft types, citing the lack of consistent work for them, and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced cost cuts.

The last seven Flight Training Airplane (FTA) pilots received 60-day involuntary layoff notices on Sept. 18, said the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA), the local union that represents the pilots. The “line assist” training work the group specializes in will be taken over by Cambridge Communications Limited, an Isle of Man company that has been working with Boeing for years.

“In the current business environment where few airlines are expected to introduce all-new models in the near-term, we have made the decision to eliminate the distinct position of Line Assist Instructor Pilot,” Boeing said. “With our commercial customers facing significant challenges, we are continuing to adjust our workforce to best support their requirements.”

Cambridge manages about 500 contract pilots, including flight instructors, for OEMs and major airlines. The company’s website says it is “currently expanding our line assist captain program for a major [OEM’s] global operations,” adding it is seeking “experienced instructor pilots” current on one of several Boeing models, including the 737, 747, 777, and 787.

“Eliminating the Boeing training pilots ends the decades-long Boeing practice of using its own specialists to ensure airline customers operate Boeing aircraft safely,” SPEEA said. “Boeing currently uses some contract pilots but has genuine Boeing pilots to ensure quality control over the contractors.” 

Boeing said that while the line-assist work will no longer be done in-house, Boeing employees will oversee the contractors. “We ... continue to work with our customers to understand their training needs and how we can support them,” the company said. 

Boeing added that it has no plans to bring the line-assist role back in house.

SPEEA said in a statement on its website that it is “preparing ... actions to take on behalf of the pilots.”

The seven layoffs are part of a massive wave of cuts that will see Boeing shed 10% of its 160,000-strong pre-pandemic workforce by year-end. Boeing’s commercial operations are being hit harder than defense and space, with at least 15% of air transport-related employees expected to be affected. 

The FTA issue is not the first pitting Boeing against SPEEA over expanding Cambridge’s role in training customers. In 2012, Boeing tapped the contractor to assist with 787 training, including the first line-assist work ever done by non-Boeing pilots.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.