Safety and mental health: aviation’s newest crisis? | Best of 2020
This article was originally published on July 8, 2020.
The coronavirus-imposed crisis is a truly unprecedented downturn in aviation’s history. However, another crisis, of safety and mental health, might be looming in the horizon.
As 2020 rolled around, slowly but steadily the aviation industry had started to break apart at the seams. As the coronavirus spread, governments imposed border restrictions upon travelers. Repatriation efforts began, as did operations to bring vital medical supplies to fight the pandemic. When the repatriation flights were completed and as less cargo was needed, the industry seemingly took a step back to self-reflect.
And the self-reflection has led to long-lasting changes that will have implications on everyone that has worked in or was involved with aviation. From a possible shift in passenger experience onboard, accelerated homogenization of aircraft in the sky, to thousands upon thousands of jobs that are going to be lost.
Despite the best efforts of governments around the world to bolster airlines’ liquidity with state aid packages, the message from the board rooms is clear: airlines are overstaffed. Understandably so, as 2019 seemed like a record-breaking year. The industry was poised to grow and employed people to meet the needs in the coming years. Even so, airlines still lacked pilots and other personnel to properly adjust to the spurt of growth.
A year ago, the situation was very different.
From too few to too many
The now-ousted chief executive officer (CEO) of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, told CNBC in June 2019 that a global pilot shortage was “one of the biggest challenges” the industry faced back then.
Now, pilots “are struggling to even find opportunities, let alone job offers,” noted Kristina Mateikaitė-Repšienė, a recruitment specialist at AeroTime Recruitment. A great curriculum vitae (CV) with lots of hours and experience is not enough anymore, according to Mateikaitė-Repšienė, as pilots have to be able to “present themselves, as more human factors come into play” when airlines pick and choose their flight crews.
The lack of opportunities follows months of uncertainty, as aviation has been abruptly stopped in its tracks. Airlines either had fired their employees outright, placed them on unpaid leave, or, for those lucky few, they allowed them to continue their duties. And questions, when those jobs could return, were asked. In an optimistic scenario, some predict that 2022 or 2023 will be the year when traffic would return to 2019-levels. Pessimistic scenarios depict that would only happen in 2025.
While so far bankruptcies have been few and far between, as no high-profile airline announced reaching the end of its road, the cash crunch and looming debt repayments can change the narrative. That could also erase many jobs across the industry, permanently.
The uncertainty that has no end in sight has an unseen toll on those that fell in love with aviation.
Toll on those affected
“The financial crisis facing this industry and the inevitable cost reductions add to the possible or actual effects of COVID-19 infection. Many aviation employees are now facing the loss of their jobs, reduced terms and conditions, and the prospect of ongoing employment insecurity in an uncertain and volatile future,” reads the European Aviation Mental Well-being Initiative’s (EAM-WELL) statement, signed by several leading European organizations that make sure employees in aviation are taken care of. European Association for Aviation Psychology (EAAP), European Cockpit Association (ECA), and the European Association for Aviation Psychology (ESAM) were amongst the organizations.
“These impacts on individuals' health - both physical and mental – are profound and far-reaching. It is highly likely that the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis could have a direct impact on flight safety,” was noted in the EAM-WELL statement.
European Union Safety Agency (EASA) shared its concerns as well.
“The pandemic is a significant source of anxiety, stress, and uncertainty for almost everyone. Worries about unemployment for aviation staff and their relatives may be exacerbated,” stated the agency’s review of aviation safety issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. The review does highlight that the “personal wellbeing of professionals is likely to have suffered,” which may lead to distractions or other normal procedures not being followed.
The concerns, unfortunately, have already turned to reality. The pilots of the fatal Pakistan International Airlines flight PK8303 were distracted during the approach, as noted in the preliminary report prepared by the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan (PCAA).
“The discussion throughout was about the corona, they had the virus in mind: their families were affected.”
Pilots questioning when it would end
“No one ever thought that this virus would affect everyone,” one pilot, who wished to remain anonymous, told AeroTime News. “Initially, I had no worries. But then, I began to question when would it end?”
“I‘m quite positive aviation will pick up again, but I will not forget the managers who used the coronavirus as an excuse to clean up companies or re-employ people on much cheaper contracts.“
Airlines have been re-negotiating their collective labor agreements with unions. For example, Lufthansa’s (LHAB) (LHA) employees, including pilots, offered to take pay cuts in order to save their jobs. Ryanair shook hands with the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) to lower their wages in an attempt to keep Ryanair’s UK-based pilots flying. British Airways was harshly criticized for its plans to cut 12,000 or 30% of its workforce, a plan which the UK lawmakers called an “attempt to take advantage of the pandemic.”
Another pilot, based in Thailand, said that he may end up giving up flying because he lost his job and opportunities were rather scarce in the country. “I have done commuting early on in my career and I’m not prepared to go back to it, there is no more point in sacrificing flying a jet to be away from my child.”
However, having extracurricular activities, like sports or being with one’s family, has helped in coping with the current uncertainty. “I have seen many falling apart from not flying,” added the Thailand-based captain.
An Airbus A320 captain, who was laid off by the European low-cost carrier Wizz Air after working for more than half a decade at the airline, had little concern at the beginning of the crisis. After all, the Centre for Aviation (CAPA) analysis showcased that Wizz Air had the highest amount of liquidity amongst European airlines going into the crisis, as the LCC had liquidity equal to 48% of its revenues. Ryanair was breathing down its neck with 47%.
“To be honest, in the beginning, I was not worried at all. I believed the company had enough funds to keep all of us, but, unfortunately, some of us got laid off. After I lost my job, my concerns hit sky-high.” Nevertheless, the now-unemployed Airbus A320 captain, at the end of the day, had no issues with his mental health.
“But I am sure that this situation hit a lot of people hard, as they are worried about their financial security. A lot of people have debts, loans, scholarships, and so on.”
Baffling airline decisions
“I think that most of the crew would be experiencing a certain degree of concern with all the negative news that has blasted the sector in the last months. We cannot ignore the facts, and we have to accept that a lot of the things are shifting, including the demand for air travel,” stated Mircea Constantin, head of development at FPU Romania. FPU Romania is the offshoot of Flyvebranchens Personale Union (FPU), a flight crew union based in Denmark.
The way that Wizz Air, for example, handled the crisis baffled Constantin. To him, it made no sense to fire over 1000 employees, without any constructive talk, only for the low-cost carrier to announce the opening of seven bases the next day.
“Being dismissed in the middle of the emergency lockdown is something that can trigger strong feelings of helplessness. It was extremely tough for some of my colleagues and members, to find themselves discarded in this most cynical way,” added Constantin.
Pilots will find the current situation more difficult than others. While most of them are still hoping for an earlier bounce back of air travel, masses of unemployed pilots are flooding the market, remarked Constantin. Patience and financial resources will be strained due to the fact that some of them hold undesirable type-ratings, as airlines retire older or inefficient aircraft.
The European Cockpit Association (ECA), a representative body on the European state-level, however, also highlighted that in a post-COVID-19 job market, pilots will need to be ready to go flying again.
“This means not only physically but mentally fit.”
Aviation fitness, or readiness to fly, is important as well, according to ECA. “Even if you are not flying, review the aircraft systems, memory items and procedures for your current aircraft.”
“Most aviation professionals were not performing their normal tasks,” including the fact that no training, whether simulator or class-based, was taking place, as EASA highlighted in its review.
“Together, this creates a reduction in the skills and knowledge of aviation professionals, and with it associated safety risks.”
Pilots do agree that maintaining flying skills is a responsibility that a pilot also should bear.
“Whether we are employed or not, it is our responsibility to keep up to date with the latest revisions of flight manuals for our last operating aircraft. The ability to fly will always be there, it just needs to be monitored and maintained by simulator sessions,” a Boeing 777 pilot told AeroTime News.
“I keep myself current by reading the documentation, updates of the regulations, and flying the simulator every time I have the opportunity to do so,” a long-haul pilot of the Boeing 787 and a Type Rating Instructor/Examiner (TRI/TRE), stated. “And I know that if I have the chance to fly, the very high training standards of my company will help me to recover for any skill degradation before I go back flying.”
However, not everyone is convinced that aviation will return to the pre-COVID-19 world.
“What I am worried about the most is that the pilot talent pool might get depleted because some will take early retirement and others will quit aviation altogether,” a captain, who has worked as a pilot for over a decade, stated. If aviation loses experienced and safety-minded pilots, can the industry still expect the same levels of safety, rhetorically asked the pilot.
“No amount of automation will make up for the loss of experienced flight crews.”
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