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.

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Even the most popular airlines are not immune to impending cuts to its operations: Emirates announced that the airline is planning to cut a part of its workforce as a difficult future is looming.
 

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.