"Unprecedented" has probably been the most used word in articles on many business topics since the first quarter of 2020. Given the shock waves all around the world caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hardly surprising.Aviation, an industry with one of the most perishable of inventories, has certainly been affected to unprecedented levels -- not even 9/11, SARS or the 2010 ash cloud over the North Atlantic caused so many flights to be canceled. On the human side, the pandemic brought huge numbers of pilot and cabin crew furloughs and redundancies which were incredibly painful for many of those affected.As increasing numbers of flights return to the schedules, airlines face the challenge of taking back staff from furlough and even some of those made redundant. David George, chief executive officer of a specialist employment agency, Brookfield Aviation, assesses the potential for all those staff to eventually return to airline work."The industry is slowly recovering as the numbers of vaccinations increase and airlines are gaining confidence," George begins. "For those crews flying on small regional jets and turboprops, the future looks brighter than for pilots and cabin crew on medium and heavy jets. The domestic aviation markets of the world are recovering much quicker than international markets because of the quarantine restrictions and international travel bans. It will be another cold year or two before getting back to normality for most Boeing and Airbus pilots and many of them won't fly again."Bill Whyte, vice president, aviation operations andamp; technical services for the Regional Airline Association (RAA) in North America, concurs with George about crews returning to the Association's members. "Judging by the plans that the major airlines and some regional airlines have for restarting pilot and cabin crew training (some have already started), all furloughed crewmembers who wish to return have either done so or will be returning when classes are available," he reports.Meanwhile, Anthony Petteford, managing director of VA Airline Training, raises an issue regarding returning to flying that affects a specific element of the pilot community. "An interesting characteristic of this situation is that those pilots that were close (say within 3-5 years) to retiring pre-pandemic may simply choose not to return and just fully retire from airline flying," he explains. "I have heard many senior pilots take this way and I think airlines may be surprised that some of the essential talent they need to return (for example, Line Training Captains/Type Rating Instructors/Type Rating Examiners) may no longer be available to return as expected."This may yield a beneficial benefit to the ab initio training industry who may have a pool of former airline talent form which to draw into part-time instructor work, thus raising the experience levels of those teaching new cadets (which can improve standards and safety). The 'suck-up' effect of airlines needing to promote more captains/trainers due to the early retirements will create greater opportunity for the new cadets, initiating a virtuous circle," Petteford suggests."Resilient Pilot is a company celebrating its first anniversary after being created in direct response to the pandemic and launched in May 2020. "Resilient Pilot is a not-for-profit, volunteer-run initiative with a mission to keep pilots and cabin crew around the world supported, current and connected, regardless of where they are in the careers," says Karen Beth, CEO and founder. "From day one we have provided free mentoring/coaching and we have over 70 volunteer pilot, cabin crew and specialist coaches and mentors from around the globe offering their time free to provide discreet, confidential one-to-one support for pilots and cabin crew."As we move into our second year, we are about to launch 'Competency Development Scenarios', which are mentor-led, desktop loft-type exercises created by our mentors. We are also very close to launching an interactive, web-based library that signposts a whole variety of resources to help maintain competency. These are all freely available through our website and mentoring support," Bath advises.Observing the likelihood for cockpit and cabin crew to eventually return to their airline roles, Bath comments, "We are aware that many pilots have had to seek alternative careers, and some have had to commit to those on a long term basis in order to secure a suitable income to take care of their families and keep a roof above their head. Others have taken early retirement and are also unlikely to return."Furthermore, the seniority system will prove very challenging for many experienced crew whose experience won't necessarily be recognized by a new airline; senior cabin crew members (SCCMs) will have to return as main crew and Captains as First Officers. This may put some off returning to the career they love," she continues."However, many are keen to get airborne again and we believe that will be possible in line with the recovery that organizations such as IATA predict. Staying as current as possible, if only through 'armchair' flying and 'desktop loft'-type scenario reviewing, will be a vital element when recruitment returns. Demonstrating resilience and a willingness to stay connected and as up-to-date as possible, we surely be instrumental in securing positions as they become available."Ironically, the longer term problem we foresee is how we avoid a return to pilot shortages and protect the future pipeline of individuals wanting to join our industry," Bath warns. "The predictions talk about a return to 2019 levels, but we had a pilot shortage in 2019. So, whilst the short term we have a pilot surplus, we could find ourselves desperate for instructors and ab initio pilots sooner than we think. Our industry therefore needs to be prepared for investing in that future pipeline of both pilots and cabin crew, keeping them motivated and finding ways to enable a more diverse workforce for the future."One of the key elements of bringing crew back online is the actual process of call backs and rehiring. "Generally speaking reinstatement is done by seniority," says RAA's Whyte. "If someone turns down a class then the next person on the seniority list will be offered the class."David George has noticed that many airlines are changing their business models to cope with the new conditions. "Some airlines may prioritize according to seniority, but cost limitations are more important. A more expensive employee furloughed is a better cost saving, so that may work against the more senior people," he remarks.Karen Bath picks up the theme, "If airlines want to retain the talent and maintain a healthy balance of experience across their workforce, then seniority is something that needs to be given some consideration. But it will be about both commercial and personnel balance and it is always an emotive subject. Some airlines have done it well and other could learn from them," she indicates."A great deal of consideration needs to be put into the recruitment requirements and refresher training. We still hear of airlines wanting recency (how?), LPCs (costly when not earning, but obviously this is regulatory rather than airline requirement), instrument ratings (IRs) current for ab initio (again, costly when newly qualified pilots are already carrying huge debts and have possibly not been able to work for a period)."One of the groups that have suffered significantly - due to the timing of the pandemic - has been pilots who were training or had just graduated from the MPL (multi-crew pilot license) route," Bath reports. "Sadly there are airlines who are refusing to take on MPS graduates, but there really is no justification for this and in fact, they are missing out on some excellently trained and line-ready pilots."Once the procedure of calling back is established, airlines will have to determine what retraining might be required to renew or maintain licenses and whether any IT applications can assist the process. "Retraining is done in accordance with the individual airline's training program and is dependent upon the time away from flying," states Bill Whyte. "This will include ground training, procedural training and simulator training. When the retraining is completed, typically there will be a checkride with a check airman in an aircraft to ensure satisfactory performance."Training is carried out by the carrier or their training provider or a mix of the two. As far as tracking crew qualifications is concerned, there are many different systems in use, some commercial and some designed in house, but all must meet the regulatory requirement to be able to track both crew qualifications for flight scheduling purposes and training needs for recurrency training," Whyte emphasizes.According to VA Airline Training's Petteford, some pilots have been using their own initiative during lockdown/furlough. "They've been paying for self-delivered crew refresher training on FTD-type simulator like we have at VA," he confirms. "The training industry has supported (in solidarity) these fellow pilots by offering the use of these devices at 50% of normal hire rates. LPCs (license proficiency checks) have also been self-administered in many cases with former airline Type Rating Examiners offering their services either free of charge or for significantly reduced costs.
"I think airlines will have derived material benefit from the goodwill/proactive initiative of their pilots during furlough. Some airlines have continued to provide these recurrent services - but they are in the minority," Petteford adds.
Karen Bath reports that in the UK, Department of Work andamp; Pensions (DWP) funding has helped a number of pilots renew and revalidate licenses, but that the funding was only available to those within +/-13 weeks of redundancy, and of course only to those in the UK. "That window of funding opportunity is effectively closed now and pilots have been self-funding, but significantly fewer than when the funding was available, which suggests a real skills deficiency going forward," she points out.
"We hope there may be more funding available within the UK and are watching closely, not just for those who are out of work, but also those who've had to take low-paid jobs to tide them over. They do not have spare funds to cover the high costs of simulator time and so on.
"Sadly, we are hearing too many reports that the system is prohibiting progress for pilots in particular right now," she continues. "The changes due to the UK's EU exit and limits on various licenses have meant pilots having to incur costs applying for other licenses and the authorities are struggling to stay on top of the administration to support that. Emotions are running high as it is, and such 'inconveniences' are really impacting the well-being of people who have already suffered enough this past year.
"Wellbeing needs to be a far greater, long-term consideration for all operators and associated organizations. Retraining for the recovery is not just about refreshing technical abilities and competencies, but also mindset and wellbeing. Are people ready to go straight back to full-time flying? And how will we manage this to ensure continued high standards and safe operations - and re-attract and maintain our talented workforce?" Bath queries in conclusion.
Brookfield's David George also notes the harmful effect that the pandemic has caused on pilots' qualifications. "There have already been thousands of pilots who have lost their currency, recent flights on type and type rating validity on their licenses, due to stopped operations and ceased LPC/OPC (operational proficiency checks) renewals normally carried out and the costs borne by airlines," he observes.
"Given the uncertainty in the industry, pilots have been reluctant or not able to pay the recurrent training costs to keep their type ratings. Most pilots are either waiting for airlines to reactivate hiring and provide retraining or a guaranteed job before the pilots pay for the costs themselves. We envisage airlines protecting their interests and some will request a bond or deposit from pilots," George predicts.
"Many pilots have either moved to other industries or decided to invest in higher education where the risk-reward ratio of training costs vs job opportunities is lower. An example can be seen in the numerous aviation professionals who have applied to study our MSc Air Transport Management and BEng/MEng Aeronautical Engineering with our partner De Montfort University in Leicester.
"Given the amount of training required and all the administration to comply with regulations, airlines have increased their needs for effective resource planning, data collection and analytics to measure and improve their training across all their network, including pilots' records of renewals, qualification management, electronic grading and scheduling. To save costs and time, the MINT TMS System is the best web-based IT solution that provides digitalization to airlines' training operations," George counsels.
As with most challenges in the airline industry, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to getting staff back and up to speed, but help is clearly there in a variety of forms, including online information exchange forums, of course.