In this third blog of our COVID-19 series, we look more closely at the impact of the pandemic on front line aviation staff and the practical people considerations that organisations are grappling with as they manage their routes to recovery. The scale of impacts of COVID-19 on aviation traffic has been much discussed including by ourselves but what impact does this have on front line staff continuing to deliver the 24/7 service required to support the global pandemic? And how will we successfully manage the recovery?
Aviation businesses must continue to ensure that the delivery of the service(s) they provide remains safe. Whether it is an airline flying cargo or repatriating people, an ANSP providing a safe transit through state airspace or ground support staff loading and unloading supplies, these activities are continuing, albeit with a significantly reduced capacity. It is imperative that during these times, organisations can ensure that staff remain focussed on their roles, whilst providing them with a safe working environment. This extends to being conscious of the impact of COVID-19 on the wellbeing of staff, and as a result, their performance in their day-to-day tasks. Wellbeing is not an issue that is the sole responsibility of an individual, organisations have a leading role too, as highlighted in the latest edition of Hindsight magazine. This will be the focus of this blog.
Immediate human impacts
In the immediate response to the pandemic, states closed borders and air travel was suspended. Aviation organisations took swift action to protect staff and the business. They introduced changes to facilitate office staff working from home, reduced the number of ATCOs on shift at any one time, enhanced aircraft cleaning and provided PPE to airport support service staff etc. These measures all visibly demonstrate that organisations are trying to provide a safe working environment. However, changes made to the operating environment (temporary or permanent) also need to be adequately considered from a human performance perspective. The following examples highlight some possible operational changes:
- Lower traffic levels result in increased merging of sectors, possibly in differing configurations than current operations.
- The use of taxiways for aircraft storage affects taxi patterns used by vehicles and aircraft.
- Inability to conduct continuation training and standards checks results in pilots losing currency.
- Reliance on newly contracted Pt-145 organisations to conduct aircraft maintenance activities at storage locations.
- Operations getting more uncomfortable or cumbersome for staff due to the need to wear PPE and to implement other COVID-19 preventive measures.
- Roster amendments to reduce possible contamination amongst ATCOs, building resilience and continuity to the operations.
These seemingly innocuous operational changes may result in significant amendments to standard operating processes or procedures and, if these are not properly verified and communicated to employees, could impact service delivery and the continuing safety of operations. Considering human performance is especially crucial if changes are being implemented under pressure.
Focus on wellbeing
The response to the crisis has been predominantly aimed at protecting staff and ensuring business longevity, but have organisations considered the impact of their actions in response to the pandemic on their staff’s wellbeing? This will have an indirect impact on staff performance.
Organisations may have furloughed staff or made some redundant resulting in increased financial concerns, enhanced stress of finding a new job, or worrying whether staff would have a job to return to. Staff may have lost the routine of a 9-5 job or shift work, for instance: working from home or working reduced hours rather than being office-based. Staff modus operandi may have changed as they are no longer able to communicate face-to-face, and the social interaction with colleagues and clients may have ceased as a result of the changes the organisation has made. On top of this, life outside of work has shifted. Your staff may be unable to socialise with friends and family, increasing frustration, boredom and anxiety. Some of your staff may have children and find themselves in a position where they are juggling their work and home-schooling commitments.
These examples highlight the possible impact to the biological, psychological and social pillars of wellbeing. The Flight Safety Foundation have published an article on the Aviation Professionals Guide to Wellbeing. Has your organisation provided this, or something similar to staff to make them aware of the impact their wellbeing has on themselves, others and their performance and how their staff can manage and enhance their wellbeing? By ensuring that organisations play their role in enhancing staff wellbeing, this will help today and help prepare people for the recovery phase.
Preparing people for the recovery phase
As restrictions on air travel eventually soften and aircraft movements increase, there needs to be a comprehensive recovery plan. This will support staff returning to work, increasing their workload and delivering services within a safety critical environment. The following are examples of the type of impact COVID-19 may have on your ability to deliver safe services:
- A prolonged period with low traffic levels could impact air traffic controller’s ability to meet high peaks in traffic levels quickly, thus creating increased opportunities for errors. As a result, air navigation service providers may want to consider opening more sectors to ease pressure on controller’s capacity or introduce further breaks to reduce periods on console.
- Pilots flight hours may have been significantly reduced which could result in the degradation of their response times to instructions, or cockpit messages, leading to errors. Airlines may therefore want to consider the introduction of a third pilot in the cockpit for oversight (short term) or conduct simulation training for staff during this period of reduced flying.
- Ground support staff may observe a reduced demand for maintenance, logistics or refuelling and therefore rebuilding the workforce in a controlled manner needs to be considered. Responses could include a phased return to work, reduced working hours, a review of working practices and increased inspections to ensure that the service provided is safe.
The Flight Safety Foundation has produced a helpful series of safety ‘punch lists’ free to download They can be used as a tool to track implementation, as well as an aide memoire. Ensuring that recovery plans take account this type of guidance is important to maximise the performance of the delivered services and minimise the number of incidents. Aviation professionals have experienced incredible changes to their work and personal lives in recent months. They are not immune to mental and physical stresses and it falls to employers to consider these additional factors when developing their recovery plans, addressing issues mentioned earlier that may impact a person’s wellbeing.
Does your team have the necessary resources (people and tools) to ensure that the recovery can be managed, assessed, reviewed, and updated appropriately on your journey back to the new normal? Does your recovery plan consider the impact of COVID-19 on human performance and wellbeing, and has it been adjusted accordingly?
The aviation industry over time, will recover, although what the new normal looks like is yet to be determined. The pandemic has already demonstrated the possible effect, both mental and physical on human beings, through stress, isolation and fear of the unknown, and it is crucial that organisations develop a strong framework with which to support their staff. Performance in safety critical roles may be inadvertently impacted through skill fade, capacity reduction, stress and other human factors; therefore, it is imperative that organisations consider ‘the human’ when developing their recovery plan.
It is of utmost importance that organisations understand that not only physical protections, such as PPE or social distancing are necessary in the recovery phases, but also longer-term stress management support and wellbeing guidance to protect staff and customers.
Our thoughts are with our aviation front line colleagues who are continuing to work in a critical role, delivering safe and efficient air travel, and at the same time dealing with the personal consequences of this crisis.