ISSN 2330-717X

Saudia Pilots Standoff – OpEd


Reports that a number of trained Saudi pilots refused a job with Saudia are to turn to law in order to force the airline to change its mind are extremely disturbing. The decision as to who is able to fly its planes has to be one taken by the airline, not by a court judge, no matter how excellent is his understanding of the law. If it were an issue of someone being refused because of the color of his skin or where he was born or some similar complaint, it would be a different matter. But this is a dispute about abilities, and on that subject, it has to be the airline that decides who should or should not fly its aircraft.

The would-be Saudia employees, trained at their own expenses abroad, complain that the airline changed its rules while they were training. That they would feel aggrieved about this is understandable; their training was expensive and they had not anticipated this sudden block in their chosen career paths. But quite apart from the fact that no one has an automatic right to a job even if he has all the right qualifications, the notion that it was unfair of Saudia to change its rules and that they should therefore not apply does not hold water. The fact that new rules were introduced after they started their training is irrelevant. Deciding to train as a pilot was their decision, not the airline’s. It is no more a valid argument than someone claiming an automatic right to work at a particular hospital because he had decided to train as a doctor.


One of the complaints is that Saudia now demands higher English-language skills than before. There are very good reasons why it has done so. English is the language of aviation. The idea that all that a pilot needs is a simple proficiency in English flight communication is false. In a normal situation that may suffice but not in an emergency. At that point, absolute fluency may be required.

For a number of reasons — there have been allegations of some near-miss incidents — Saudia decided that in future its pilots must have, and be seen to have, greater English-language skills. Once Saudia came to that conclusion, whatever the reason, it would have been wholly irresponsible, if not culpably so, not to enforce it. Saudia has acted entirely responsibly in this matter.

Around the world, companies introduce new rules for new applicants all the time. It is a perfectly normal employment practice. They do so because a weakness or deficiency or a new need has come to light and requires to be actioned. In such situations, it is standard practice that new rules are not used to disbar existing employees. The usual procedure is that they go on a course and retrain.

Safety has to be an airline’s first consideration. Arguments about Saudization or about foreign pilots leaving Saudia as soon as they have been trained to fly new aircraft are irrelevant in such circumstances. If an airline decides that, in the interests of safety, a higher barrier is required in its recruitment policies that must be accepted. Indeed, just as it would be scandalous if it did not respond to its assessment of the situation and change its standards, so too it would be cause for the gravest concern if those decisions were overruled for lesser, technical reasons.

No one is going to have confidence in an airline whose pilots do not meet its latest standards but are forced on it by a court. The decision to whom it employs to fly its planes must be Saudia’s, and Saudia’s alone.

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Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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