No matter where we stand the consequences of Covid have been severe on numbers of aircraft, the airlines and the people who work for them. It’s been good for some and its been bad more often.
One of the really positive aspects of the past twenty years had been the growing number of female pilots. Those numbers had increased progressively over the past few years. New pilots of both sexes were in high demand and airlines were even facing a pilot shortage just a year ago. So much so that airlines as diverse as British Airways and United had restarted pilot training programmes.
Suddenly all that has gone, junior pilots are the first out of the door. There are several reasons. One is that their experience is far less so airlines would rather keep seasoned pilots. The second is that seasoned pilots cost more to make redundant, by virtue of their pay, pensions and length of service. It often ignores the fact that many of these younger pilots have greater technological appreciation, are fast learners, more adaptable and don’t have the entrenched unionised expectations of older pilots.
This has had a huge impact on the number of female pilots, because most of them entered relatively recently into aviation – the majority in the last five years. They lack the service to secure seniority, which by virtue of the male dominated industry before women were more widely considered, means pilots are becoming largely male, and middle-aged and the long term damage this will cause has yet to be understood.
Learning to be a pilot, getting yourself to a standard airlines might accept you, takes a great deal of time and easily £100,000 + if not far more. The airline itself is likely to hold you for that much again in repayable debt if they take you on – so that you don’t leave before a number of years are up. All of that, at least for now, has gone to waste.
Cabin Crews, whose training many in the general public fail to fully appreciate, and whose pay is often far from what most would expect, are facing the future of alternative employment, or no job at all for the foreseeable future. For many it’s a way of life. If they commit to it, many stay for years, but they too are faced with bleak opportunities. They also faced the likely costs of having to pay for their own training and uniforms, especially with the more cost conscious airlines like Ryan Air.
Around the world its estimated that almost one million ground handling, catering, immigration, customs and airport and airline managers have lost their jobs or are about to as the world in effect, largely shuts down most airports or they remain operating at barely 30% of their capacities. Small local airports have been drastically affected, loosing flights, operating on tight budgets, many face permanent closure.
Even hotel chains,airports shops and restaurants, bus transfer and taxi companies have suffered as the drastic reduction in passenger travel has sharply curtailed airport use. The knock-on effect through the rest of the economy has been staggering.
The aircraft maintenance companies have suffered just as badly, with demand slashed as aircraft stay out of service. Trained, highly qualified aircraft mechanics and technicians face job losses around the world. Beyond that the parts manufacturers too, face their own problems as demand for spares drops. New aircraft need fewer spares, retired older aircraft are eliminated cutting that market savagely. In a further twist, as those retired aircraft are broken up, they provide a rapidly growing spares market far cheaper than buying new parts. And the more that are broken up the more used quality parts there are and the cheaper they become. The only upside is eventually when those parts are gone, they’re gone for good.
The flip side of course always exists. One mans misery is another mans pay day. The aircraft storage and breaking business is having a bumper year, some places struggling to actually find the space in the first place, bearing in mind hundreds of 737MAX’s were already parked up in desert storage.
Cargo operators are having a major pay day, but you can hardly blame them for enjoying it, air freight is not a consistently profitable business and fortunes can turn on a dime – ask the CEO of Cargologicair UK about that!
Yet really it’s our human inventiveness that will see us through. Airlines are doing interesting things; flights to nowhere for one are selling out fast. people willing to fly and have the experience of coastal views they may never have seen, antarctic landscapes, you name it. But none of it will be enough to save the airline industry as it was.
Change is coming, aircraft scrap lines and revised operations are going to reshape the way we fly, if not so much where. Maybe it’s time for a really long hard think about what the future holds, our social, economic and environmental responsibilities. It really isn’t going to be the same. Familiar, but not the same. In the long run I suspect we’ll see that as a good thing.