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The Aviation Skills Crisis

  • by: Danny Brooks
  • On: 21, Jun 2022
4 min read

Prepared by Danny Brooks MBE, CEO Virtual Human Resources Ltd.

The aviation skills crisis is due to several factors as highlighted below, chief amongst these being BREXIT, the COVID-19 Pandemic, and the ending for furlough prior to the lifting of flight restrictions. Airlines and the aviation supply chain having suffered huge losses throughout the Pandemic had to protect themselves through large scale redundancy programmes which led a huge exodus of workers from the industry. British Airways reduced its workforce by 10,000, EasyJet by 2,000 and Swissport 20,000 equating to a third of its workforce.

It is important to understand that UK is not the only nation suffering a shortage of skills in Aviation. The shortage spans the globe, although, the UK is suffering to a greater extent due to the effects of Brexit on immigration curtailing the supply of the Labour pool.

Below I seek to briefly outline the issues the aviation sector is facing, what has happened to the workforce and mitigations. It is important that policies created to address the current crisis are part of a joined-up approach that consider all parties in the aviation supply chain not just the operators; after all there is no point being able to staff an entire airline when there are no baggage handlers to offload the baggage. There is no easy short-term fix and policies should not ignore the medium and long term if they want to build a sustainable aviation sector.

  • COVID caused most of these workers to be furloughed and then as furlough ended made redundant. As Aviation restrictions were lifted considerably after furlough ended these workers found alternative employment or returned to their home country.

  • Lack of Training across the aviation sector for 2 years due to COVID. This has reduced the available labour pool by at least 7% based on 30 years as an average aviation career span.

  • Retirement and Early Retirement – Covid caused a number of people close to retirement age to bring their retirement plans forward. These workers have not been replaced as there has been little aviation training for 2 years.

  • Additional Training Load – Due to the length of Covid, Pilots, Engineers and Cabin Crew have required recurrent training in order to be legally able to operate and maintain aircraft. This is normally a planned event that happens at certain time junctures across a year period for an airline. As a result of COVID the training requirement is unprecedented as large portions of the workforce are not current and require training. Coupled with this is the fact that most training departments would have suffered redundancies due to COVID so there is less resource available to train.

  • Efficiency Loss – Airlines and Airport Operations have had a significant period of reduced workload and it will take staff time to reach the productivity and service levels of pre-Covid as they relearn their jobs.

  • Increased Maintenance – COVID has caused Aircraft Maintenance to be deferred as aircraft were not in use. In addition, aircraft parked in storage require a greater maintenance input to put the aircraft into service than an aircraft that has been continually operated. Additional aircraft maintenance has increased the demand for aircraft maintenance personnel.

  • COVID Traffic Light System – Whilst necessary to protect the public health of the nation, the system left the aviation sector with very little room to plan as destinations were removed and added at short notice.

  • BREXIT – Brexit has significantly reduced the available labour pool for the aviation sector. The sector has heavily relied on migrant labour particularly in the unskilled / semi-skilled jobs. In addition, Brexit has made it more difficult to wet lease aircraft (aircraft, crew, maintenance, and insurance) which are traditionally used to ramp up capacity quickly.

  • The appetite for travel has rebounded extremely quickly leaving many in the industry surprised. Companies are struggling to recruit the volume of personnel required due to:
  1. a) Shortage of HR and recruitment staff in their organisations (due to Covid redundancies) trying to recruit volumes of personnel that are unprecedented due the fast uptick in demand for aviation travel.
  2. b) Low Pay Rates for unskilled / semi-skilled workers: At or close to the minimum wage due to extremely tight margins for the aviation suppliers driven by pre-covid agreements, pressure from the operators and desire to recover covid losses.
  3. c) Competition from alternative industries and employers. Skilled workers leaving the industry for the renewables sector, autonomous vehicles, space that are less prone to boom / bust cycles. Unskilled / Semi-Skilled workers for amazon, supermarket chains offering better working arrangements.
  4. d) Anti-social hours that accompany working at airports and new attitudes to work/life balance brought on from lockdown and furlough.
  5. e) Reticence / nervousness to return to the aviation industry due to the boom/bust cycles.
  6. f) Increased Security Clearance and Airside Pass processing times together with the increased difficulty of prospective new recruits obtaining references meaning recruits are taking longer to onboard or drop out of the process as starting employment is taking too long.

 

As if the UK Aviation Sector was not suffering enough there are further external factors that are compounding the issues. Air Traffic Control Issues across Europe through system upgrades (France in particular) and strike Action have increased the likelihood of delays and cancellations as has airspace Closures due to the war in Ukraine adding congestion to the skies.

Possible Mitigations

Short Term

Introduction of a scheme akin to the HGV drivers that allowed the relaxation of immigration rules for a temporary period to allow the entire aviation supply chain recruit in a controlled manner the required skills from abroad whilst the UK recruits and trains local workers.
Recruitment and training of newly migrated Ukrainian workers including English classes so that they may join the Aviation Sector.
Improve timescales for processing of Airside Passes

Medium & Long Term

Assessment and modification where required of immigration policies for the aviation sector to allow controlled migration.
Incentives to the Aviation Industry to train sufficient volumes of staff.
Operators and Suppliers to work together to promote the industry including costing in realistic salaries
Review Lessons learned from the COVID Pandemic and the approach of other European Governments to avoid the current circumstances.

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