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BLOG: Flying without wings

Posted 15 June 2020 · Add Comment

Dubai-based A320 pilot Tom Peaford looks at the changing world for airline pilots and manages expectations.

Flying without Wings

Perhaps I am biased, but being a pilot is a profession like no other. I don’t know of many children who grew up wishing to be accountants or bank managers - but for a great deal, becoming an aviator is a dream from a very early age.

However, it’s not so simple to get those wings. It takes a degree of aptitude and intelligence, it takes dedication, money and passion before you finally earn your place on the right seat of a commercial airliner. But what happens when it all gets taken away in the blink of an eye?

When we started to hear about the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China, I don’t think many of us realised just how deeply the situation would affect us. Fast forward a few months and aviation is now facing its biggest ever challenge. Even the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the global financial crisis didn’t come close to grounding thousands of aircraft for many months on such a global scale, like it is now. With this, airlines are being forced to adapt, to tighten up and go into survival mode - and that means job losses for thousands of pilots.

Flashback to June of last year when the then Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told reporters at the Paris Air Show, a global pilot shortage is 'one of the biggest challenges' facing the airline industry. Demand for air travel is growing so rapidly that 800,000 new pilots are expected to be needed over the next 20 years, according to Boeing's latest forecast.

Suddenly though, the apparent shortage has become a surplus and the careers of thousands of pilots are left in the balance as airlines make large-scale redundancies. With huge amounts of cash, rather than jet fuel, burning daily, many airlines are deciding to cull the workforce now, knowing that when the recovery happens, they’ll be in a strong position to quickly rehire from the pick of the best job-seekers scrambling to be airborne again - possibly even offering new, less-favourable terms and conditions.

The big question we simply do not know the answer to is when will this recovery happen? Key figures in the industry are suggesting that it could be anywhere from one to five years. It’s a case of the Optimist vs Pessimist, or as George Bernard Shaw would put it - ‘The inventor of the aeroplane vs the inventor of the parachute’.

For us pilots, simply waiting for a recovery is neither cheap nor straightforward. To renew a type rating, a pilot has to undergo an annual licence proficiency check which involves 2-3 hours in a simulator with a type-rated examiner and has to maintain their annual Class 1 aviation medical. The cost of this is approximately $3,000 which isn’t easy to part with when you’re unemployed - and even if you manage to, most airlines when recruiting, require you to have actively flown a minimum amount of hours on your aircraft type within the previous year to be considered for the position. Another hurdle is that certain regulators, such as the UAE’s regular, the GCAA, told us recently that it is only possible to renew a type rating if you are employed with a UAE-approved operator. Whether these requirements will be relaxed given the current situation remains to be seen.

In addition to this, most of us have financial commitments, whether that be a training loan, a mortgage, or a family to support so simply waiting for airlines to start hiring again may not be feasible and we have to look to seek employment outside of aviation until we land our next pilot job.

The good news is that pilots have plenty of transferable ‘soft skills’. Most of us see a pilot’s profession as very technical. One needs to pass a number of exams and know complex theory by heart. It is true, technical training is a requirement for pilots, but it is only one part which is needed in order to do the job at a high proficiency level. Non-technical skills are a must and pilots have these in abundance.

Pilots are motivated, flexible and have very high standards. They are leaders, communicators and decision makers. They are quick learners, multi-taskers, problem-solvers and self-confident. Time management takes only second priority to safety and when things don’t go to plan, pilots have been trained to remain calm and reliable in such difficult and stressful situations.

Being a pilot is more than a job – it is a status and with that, many will find it hard to accept that their next job may not put them as high up the ‘job ladder’ as they feel they should be entitled to.

The national press in the UK recently found the stories of unemployed or furloughed pilots who’d swapped the cockpit of jets to that of trucks, becoming delivery drivers for supermarkets to be newsworthy - as if it was such an incredible fall from the skies. But it’s time to adapt and be realistic. An interim role may be perceived as a step down from the elite position previously held, but the learning that will come from it will put anyone in good stead for future career opportunities.

I asked Karen Bath, Co-founder of and aviation recruitment specialist, about what advice she would give job-hunting pilots. “Don’t under estimate the power of a strong, well-constructed CV. It’s the window to you, and it needs to reflect the criteria in the job advert,” she said. “When writing a cover letter, show your motivation to work for that particular company. All too often, I would receive cover letters written to the wrong company! Try and demonstrate something unique but relevant to the role about you so that you stand out. Sell yourself. You may not get the chance at interview if you don’t do it on your CV.”

And when it comes to the all-important interview, Karen advises applicants to prepare thoroughly in advance. “There’s lots of companies around who can help. Make sure you research the company; their values, their achievements etc, before interview and ensure you have examples that demonstrate you have the skills relevant to that company’s requirement. For aviation jobs, most airlines do evidence-based interviews nowadays, eg ‘tell me a time when….’. Write list of examples prior to the interview that link to each of the core competencies and selection criteria etc and of course - make sure you don’t always refer to the same example.”

If you do have the luxury of not needing an interim job until the recovery begins, it’s well worth still using this time effectively.

More and more airlines seek pilots who are customer aware, as well as technically and commercially aware. Use the time wisely to hone those skill areas (as well as staying on top of technical knowledge and more traditional pilot skills) for when the airlines start their recruitment drive. We’re already seeing airlines in the Far East opening up applications again so there’s hope on the horizon.

It is at times very difficult to see beyond the doom and gloom in the depths of a crisis, but there will be blue skies ahead - plan for the worst, hope for the best.

The airline industry has always been cyclical and has always had challenges for pilots. There’s an old aviation saying “ Sometimes it is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground,” There’s probably not many of us would agree at this particular time. But we shouldn’t need Bernard Shaw’s parachute right now – with the right approach from licensing regulators and the opportunity to do something else for a time while utilising our skills, we should soon be once again slipping those surly bonds of Earth.


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