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On Final: Impacts of COVID-19 on Aviators

How universities can help drive change with cross-sector collaboration


March 4, 2021  By Suzanne Kearns

Dr. Kearns’ newest textbook, launching on March 22, will be published in multiple languages. PHOTO: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group

Before the pandemic, the air transport sector was booming. ICAO had projected international aviation would double annual flights between 2019 and 2026. The world was facing a looming shortage of aviation professionals as training organizations struggled to meet demand. Today, airlines around the world are struggling for survival. COVID-19 has been devastating for the sector – 2020 international passenger demand was down 75.6 per cent from 2019 levels, as reported by IATA. 

The most significant challenges facing Canadian aviation are economic. Our operators’ survivability is top priority, requiring financial support to remain viable. However, there is another issue receiving less attention; specifically, the pandemic’s impact on the aviation workforce and how innovative research is needed to support a sustainable workforce. With travel restrictions decreasing demand for flights, most aviation workers have been out of work for months. According to FlightGlobal, about 43 per cent of the world’s pilots are still flying professionally. Most are unemployed, furloughed (laid off, often without pay, waiting to be recalled) or working in a role outside of their field.

In Canada, aviation workers have taken to social media with the request to #SaveCanadianAviation, drawing attention to the need for financial bailouts to ensure they have an employer to go back to. What has received less attention is the distressing emotional impact on the workers themselves. Despite aviation being a cyclical industry marked by waves of profits and losses, nearly 70 per cent of current pilots have never faced unemployment, as before the pandemic, the sector had experienced a record 10 years of profits. It was typical for trainees to be told that there was a looming shortage of professionals, and they could look forward to unprecedented career progression. 

With the pandemic, the rug has been abruptly pulled from below their feet. Around 82 per cent of pilots are reporting concerns about job security, according to FlightGlobal, and 58 per cent of pilots under 24 years of age report their mental health has been affected. For pilots who have been fortunate enough to be called back to the flight deck, NASA’s confidential safety reporting system has received numerous self-reports of pilots feeling “rusty” in their flying skills. A longer-term challenge is associated with the attrition of aviation workers. Facing layoffs, many senior crew members have chosen early retirement, mid-career professionals pivoted into other fields, and youth are discouraged from pursuing aviation careers due to perceived precarity.

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Attrition is compounded by a diminished training capacity, resulting from pandemic-related training backlogs. At the University of Waterloo, we had to reduce our first-year intake class size by half, from 120 to 60 pilot-students, for 2021 and 2022. Our workforce’s long-term sustainability is a critical consideration: We must invest in today to support a stronger future for the sector. There is an opportunity to challenge the industry’s status quo and factors taken for granted before the pandemic. We must mobilize Canadian universities’ research capacity to directly support aviation, analyzing social sustainability in the workforce.

This work has been underway at the University of Waterloo, where more than 25 researchers have united across academic disciplines, collaborating on research in direct service of the aviation industry. Targeted research is exploring the attraction, education and retention of the next generation of aviation professionals. Research projects are focusing on equity, diversity and inclusion; machine learning and AI; optimizing how pilots learn and exploring the integration of training technologies like augmented and virtual reality; competency-based education; and how the electrification of flight training aircraft can reduce noise and carbon emissions.

There is light over the horizon. Boeing predicts that between 2020 and 2039, the world will need 763,000 pilots, 739,000 maintenance technicians, and 903,000 cabin crewmembers. In the coming decade alone, CAE projects that the civil aviation industry will require more than 260,000 new pilots – with 27,000 new pilots needed by the end of 2021. This demand is likely to cause a reemergence of aviation personnel shortages as early as the end of this year.

Through innovative cross-sector collaborations, we can drive meaningful change. Sustainable, economical, and social solutions to address pressing needs facing aviation and support post-pandemic recovery within the industry – supporting a future that will, once again, allow aviation to bring the world together. | W


This article was first published by The Hill Times. Dr. Suzanne Kearns is an Aviation Professor at the University of Waterloo.

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