COVID-19 is arguably one of the most challenging and complicated emergencies faced by every country around the world. While we all hope we may be nearing the end of this emergency, can the return to flying be risk free? What are those pitfalls we need to look out for? This article will look in more detail at the threats faced by the aviation industry and ways to mitigate them as we attempt to return to ‘normal’.
How much time do we have to deal with this emergency? This will vary across individuals, depending on their own circumstances such as if they were furloughed, made redundant, or spent a long period of time on the ground. Quite simply, yes, we do have time to deal with this emergency – but that time is now. If we delay considerations of the post-pandemic effect, we may find ourselves caught off-guard in flight, which we all want to avoid.
There are three areas that are particularly relevant and require reflection as people return to work from furlough, redundancy or role change.
Lack of recency
The pandemic has affected people in a variety of ways: no two people will have had exactly the same experience and it is important that we remember this when considering individual stress.
As early as April 2020, the effects of isolation during lockdown and social distancing were already understood[i]. This is not a surprise. Cognitive neuroscience studies have shown that humans are social creatures, and our brains are designed to have close contact with other humans[ii]. Feelings of disconnection and disengagement from colleagues and employers have affected everyone to some extent.
At the extremes, there are groups of people who are cooped up together with immediate family, who may be struggling with relationships, remote working and home schooling, whilst others are experiencing the opposite issues of loneliness, physical isolation, and long-term separation from family and friends. Loss of our social support network can be associated with depression, anxiety and stress. When one or both members in a relationship are dealing with these difficult issues, it can destabilize our relationships, especially when lockdown gives us nowhere to escape or time to recover.
Just as we will all have experienced the pandemic in different ways, we also have differing capacities for dealing with the current situation, and we will not all respond in the same way. When combining this with lockdown restrictions on mental health services[iii], there is no doubt that the effects of COVID-19 on mental wellbeing have been extreme. The stress experienced will last longer than the situation is visible, and everyone will need a little help from time to time.
The pandemic has had an undeniable impact on the aviation industry, and we face a constantly changing, unstable, and uncertain economic environment, creating enormous organizational stress. Previously, when aviation companies have been in trouble, many other airlines were ready to snatch up any extra pilots. Jobs may have been lost, but pilots remained in pilot careers. COVID has changed that.
The loss of pilot status can have a marked effect on a person’s mental health and self-esteem. Many companies may not continue to operate in the future or will need to restructure to be able to meet the challenges presented by the pandemic.
While the full extent of lost organizations is yet to be known, we do know that many airlines have declared risk or loss of tens of thousands of pilot roles.[iv]
Organizational stress is compounded by natural human behavior. Where companies are struggling and in constant crisis management mode, employees will feel this stress. Individuals in all positions (especially leadership) may unintentionally motivate others to cut corners or fail to report issues to avoid the appearance of poor performance. In addition, the adherence to important processes and monitoring systems may drop-off as they are not seen as critical in a reactive and tactical environment.
With the reduction in flying due to changes in the operation, furlough or redundancy, it is perfectly normal for there to be concerns about lack of recency. Pilot knowledge and skills may not have been used for a while and people may be concerned that they are ‘out of practice’. In a desperate attempt to regain diminished skills, it can be very tempting to fly when not fit to do so. Or the opposite may be true, and some may feel a fear of flying due to lack of recency. Tasks that previously took very little effort will demand much more brain power. Identifying what has been forgotten is extremely difficult. How can you know what you do not know?
A question that was raised recently in the Airside Webinar, was “How long is too long to be on the ground?” Flying and operating aircraft does include a considerable number of perishable skills, which if not continually practiced, will diminish over time. However, not all skills are perishable. The motoric nature of flying is stored within your neuron structure. This means the physical handling of an aircraft is not as perishable a skill. The old saying, “you never forget how to ride a bike” is equally true for flying an aircraft.
The physiological and psychological effects of the time away from the flight deck can have a substantial and lasting effect. This may have an impact on our performance at work. The impact of these stressors is well known in terms of our ability to concentrate, remember, plan, make decisions and react. Lack of physical exercise and changes in diet often lead to disturbed sleep, and further exacerbate the individual stress. These threats have always existed but are now exacerbated and additional attention is required. We must devote time to understand and deal with the difficult-to-predict threats, ones that we are not expecting, and those we are less accustomed to monitoring.
So, what are the options to mitigate these threats?
Firstly, let’s all ensure we are prepared. During time away, regulations, SOPs and the way to ‘do stuff’ may have altered slightly. Whether this is simply due to time passing, or due to the additional complications of physical distancing or biosecurity measures, you must prepare for it. Give yourself time for familiarization with changes. Be thorough, ask questions, and seek further guidance from peers or managers if you need to.
To allow this communication, we must all promote an atmosphere of psychological safety. Everyone should feel safe to admit if they are struggling or need assistance. We should keep an open and honest environment, free from judgment, where we can discuss fears within ourselves, and gently approach observations of concern in others. Use discussions, friendly reminders, and constructive criticism to correct as necessary, learn and move on.
The atmosphere of psychological safety includes being fair and kind to yourself. Do not put pressure on yourself unduly. Lower expectations about your performance, but do not allow your standards to slip. Be prepared, expect that things will go wrong. Normal duties could be unfamiliar and may go wrong in unexpected ways.
A top tip here is to watch out for the ‘hidden dip’. The graph here shows how our capacity might react to the return to flying. At first, we will use a load of extra concentration and be consciously aware of the cognitive skill fade. However, as we progress, this feeling will diminish, and we can be lulled into a false sense of security that we are back to normal.
Try to maintain superior concentration and alertness. Use this pause from flying to your advantage, boost your piloting skills and knowledge to beyond where you were in late 2019. This way we can try to avoid the hidden dip, where dangers lurk for the unaware.
Self-awareness and recognition of impact are vital in mitigating the post-pandemic threats. Be honest with yourself about how you are feeling, both physically and mentally, so that you can accurately assess your abilities. This may change day to day, so keep vigilant. Recognize the impact your behavior and/or state of mind may have on others.
To help everyone to be self-aware, we need to share our errors so we can learn from each other. Adherence to monitoring and reporting processes is as important as ever but may be one of the easily forgotten tasks. Refresh your knowledge of the safety management systems in place, and encourage your peers to use them, maybe even more than before the pandemic, to share and learn from everyone’s experiences.
We need to keep working together as a team and actively manage wellbeing. There are many resources to assist with wellbeing; think about healthy eating, exercise, mindfulness and meditation. Take time for yourself, take a walk or read a book. Personal welfare is often considered by management and leadership at discrete, obviously challenging, times. But outside of these times wellbeing can be dismissed as a ‘nice to have’ and be forgotten. Post COVID, we must now move to consider wellbeing as an ongoing and important risk to be proactively managed.
Dealing with problems in the post-pandemic phase will be an evolving situation. Hopefully, the decisions and actions taken will provide some relief and risk mitigation. If it is not working, maybe a change of tack is needed. If it is working, then maybe other areas are now open for options, decisions and actions.
In reviewing your own progress through aviation recovery, bear in mind how your colleagues are doing. Coaching and mentoring are valuable tools to help others reflect on and review their own decisions. This may become particularly important for new pilots, who may have suffered more cognitive skill fade, due to their lesser experience pre-COVID.
In summary, flying has always included threats and it has always carried risks. Pilots are used to dealing with risk, and as such should consider the post-pandemic phase as just another risk to be mitigated. Reflect on your own situation and form a plan of action. Carry it out and review it for continued relevance. There is nothing here that cannot be overcome, no matter how long you have been on the ground, or how ‘rusty’ you may feel. CAE’s Chief Learning Officer, Chris Ranganathan, commented in the Airside webinar, that there are pilots who have returned to flying after 5 years with ease, and even after 17 years. While this time on the ground during COVID-19 is frustrating, and seems to be lasting forever, it will pass, and hopefully soon you can get back in the air, safely.
References and End notes:
What Do We Know About Coronavirus and-Suicide-Risk? Samaritans.org.
UK CAA CAP1919 Safety advice and tips for pilots returning to GA flying post COVID-19.
Most Commercial pilots no longer flying, Flight Global, article 142026, 28 Jan 2021
[i] COVID-19: Five Dimensions of impact, The Health Foundation, 29 Apr 2020.
[iii] COVID-19 disrupting mental health services in most countries, WHO, 5 Oct 2020.
[iv] Redundancy tracker: European Pilots Losing Their Jobs, Eurocockpit.be, 20 Jan 2021.
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