Dame Deirdre Hutton, the former chair of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, tells her story about leading the regulator as Covid struck.

Dame Deirdre Hutton
Former Chair, UK Civil Aviation Authority
London, UK

In July 2019 when the Department for Transport in the UK asked me to stay on as chair of the Civil Aviation Authority for a further year, I had no idea what was coming. Would I have agreed to stay on if I had known? Yes, I probably would because although that year until August 2020, when I stood down, was full of crisis and challenge, it also illustrated some of the very best things about the CAA and humanity.

In the autumn of 2019 we have the very sad collapse of Thomas Cook. This led to an extraordinary effort by the CAA to repatriate the 130,000 or so customers who were abroad at the time as well as the reimbursement of some 350,000 people who had paid for, but not had, their holiday. What this meant was that the CAA had been in crisis mode for about six months before Covid hit and by February 2020, everyone was very tired. But, as they always do, all my then colleagues at the CAA rose to the challenge.

dame deirdre hutton former chair of uk civil aviation authority

Dame Deirdre Hutton, the former chair of the UK CAA 

My first Covid experience was catching it! That was before it had become much of an issue and before anyone knew much about it. Fortunately, I was not very ill though terrifyingly large amounts of my hair fell out - something that is now a recognised after effect, but not a good look for a woman! It was enough of a wake up call to make me extremely sympathetic to anyone who developed Covid and very cautious about the way we should operate.

Like everyone, we were anxious about our IT. Would it hold up under the strain of everyone working from home? Fortunately, yes. Everyone adapted very well and very quickly. But I did find chairing board meetings hard and I remember that after the first one having a very stiff neck because I felt unable to budge an inch in my seat whereas normally you move around quite a lot. It also taught me how much you listen with your eyes. Normally, as one person is talking, you are assessing the response of others, seeing who disagrees or supports, seeing who wants to speak. We have all become much better at virtual meetings but I was hugely pleased to see my colleagues again in person, albeit distanced, for what was my last CAA board meeting in July 2020.

What I saw over that period was immense professionalism coupled with a real care for colleagues which was really inspiring. Teams organised themselves for social zooms, cocktail zooms, singing zooms - all sorts of things to keep people together and their spirits up. I am one of the very lucky ones with a house and garden but was always so conscious of colleagues, particularly younger colleagues, who struggled to find space to work in more cramped accommodation. I understand that WFB (working from bed) is now a recognised acronym, but it is not acceptable. Employers must take as much responsibility for the physical wellbeing of their colleagues working from home as they did when those people were in their ergonomically designed chairs at their proper desks in the office.

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Mostly, though, I am left with an immense sense of pride in the commitment and the humanity of all at the CAA and in the industry. Although we are a regulator and must ensure that the rules are properly adhered to, this is a crisis where both the industry and the regulator have striven to work together for the good of aviation as a successful and forward-looking industry, full of wonderful adventurous and creative people.

Although these have been hard months and we have seen distressing scenes, we have also heard amazing and inspirational tales and I look forward to reading more of your Covid stories though this initiative. There is no doubt that our industry is one of the most resilient and I am sure that the recovery will arrive and you will be back in the skies where you belong. Until then, stay safe and thank you for reading my Covid story.