COVID-19 continues to have devastating impacts on the air transport sector. Early in the pandemic, approximately 80 per cent of the world’s passenger airline fleet was grounded. In a matter of months hundreds of thousands of airline employees worldwide were dismissed or furloughed (on unpaid leave).
It’s challenging to grasp the far-reaching economic and social harm this pandemic has caused to aviation workers and the sector at large. Not seeing a future in aviation, many aviators are choosing to leave the industry altogether to pursue professions in other fields. Setting aside the passion that aviators share for flight - there are various challenges inherent in aviation careers, including financial barriers to entry, low starting pay, challenging training and travel schedules, rigorous medical standards, and a lack of gender and ethnic diversity.
Before the pandemic, there was a looming shortage of aviation professionals in Canada and across the globe (pilots, maintenance engineers, and others). At that time, aircraft operators were increasingly reporting cancellations of flights due to a lack of available crew.
Although there is no shortage of aviation professionals during the pandemic, we must look to the future and recognize that recoveries follow downturns. We began 2020 with pre-existing aviation personnel shortages. When this is coupled with thousands of aviation professionals leaving the sector mid-pandemic, and youth being discouraged from joining the field, international aviation will face desperate personnel shortages in the years ahead without support. Countries that invest in innovation and cross-sector partnerships during this time are likely to emerge as leaders supporting the future, more sustainable, air transport sector.
Boeing’s recently updated ‘Pilot and Technician Forecast’ predicts between the years 2020 and 2039, 763,000 pilots, 739,000 maintenance technicians, and 903,000 cabin crew members will be needed internationally. After long-bouts in quarantine, travel and tourism demand will be high once society can return to a new normal.
A sustainable air transport sector will be a critical component of post-pandemic economic recovery. Yet, without a competent and ready workforce, this recovery will be difficult. Therefore, we propose that a sustainable aviation strategy should prioritize research to support the development of a competent and ready aviation workforce. We need to catalyze and grow science-based approaches to attract, educate, and retain the Next Generation of Aviation Professionals (NGAP).
The COVID-19 downturn presents an opportunity to analyze and resolve some of the critical challenges facing aviation pre-pandemic and innovate for a better future.