The New Normal and You

Adrian Powell

18 June 2021

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As the world slowly returns to some semblance of normality, many pilots are seeing their rosters filling back up and their working patterns return, often quite suddenly going from furlough to busy. This has a significant number of challenges, not least the fact that crew will be unused to the irregular sleep patterns inherent within our industry. For many, after over a year of returning to a regular sleep cycle, shift work is once again proving a bit of a shock to the system. I think we can all recall how we felt when we first entered the industry and saw our first 0430 report appear on the roster; or have experienced the challenges of a deep night shift, driving home exhausted after a 12+ hour working day amidst the morning rush-hour traffic.

Fatigue is a concern not only for the wellbeing of the individual but also for the performance of the crew and, ultimately, for the safety of the aircraft. While some airlines have a reasonably robust fatigue management system, this certainly isn’t replicated across the board. Indeed, some airlines deny that their crews are able to be fatigued, a curious concept when dealing with humans rather than machines. While we will adapt as an industry to shift work again, the initial increase in fatigue levels has an effect on pilot capacity; how able they are to deal with and adapt to an ever-changing environment, and how well they can thus deal with any non-normal situations that may arise.

It’s certainly not only fatigue, however, that may impact capacity. Crew are markedly less current than they were 18 months ago, with checks and scan flows that were previously almost automatic requiring conscious effort to complete correctly. A lack of currency is known to be a factor in increased errors and, while many airlines are introducing some mitigating factors such as no longer pushing for CDAs and single engine taxi, the lack of currency is a cognitive strain for pilots. This will, of course, reduce as flying returns to pre-pandemic levels but an increase in mistakes, and therefore safety reports, is to be expected in the interim.

One significant emotional challenge facing aircrew at present is the ever-changing governmental goalposts; only this week, Portugal was removed from the ‘green’ list in a seemingly purely political move, and the Canary Islands, much speculated to be moving to the ‘green’ list, not doing so. The number of countries to which UK airlines can currently fly passengers without any risk of quarantine on return is ever diminishing and this severely risks the livelihoods of thousands of aviation professionals. Having one’s economic stability threatened on a regular basis is a source of chronic stress and this is undoubtedly impacting the health of our pilots. Of course, it’s far from just pilots who are affected. Air Traffic Controllers, unused to working multiple aircraft concurrently at present, will be suffering from many of the same stressors. Cabin crew, too, are finding it challenging. No facet of operational aviation has been untouched.

The impact of stress, unfamiliarity and fatigue upon aircrew is not insignificant. Reduced capacity can result in increased errors, higher stress levels and an inability to cope with things going wrong. Furthermore, with industry uncertainty, pilots suffering from this lack of capacity, as well as the other stresses that the last year has wrought upon everyone, may be even less willing to speak up than usual. For the first time, all pilots are feeling almost constantly ‘at risk’ with the economic climate being so unstable. The prospect of losing one’s medical when redundancies feel like they’re just around the corner can be an unpalatable one and the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality may well be more prevalent than ever before. This begs the question – are we as an industry sleepwalking into a wellbeing crisis?

PilotsTogether is providing wellbeing and community support for all UK-based airline pilots who are finding things tough, or just want to feel that sense of community. This was demonstrated recently with our first Crewroom session, with Captain Helen Heenan, bringing together pilots from across various airlines to talk about their wellbeing. Our meet-ups have proven popular, and these will be continuing too. Our Crewroom series will continue monthly, with some incredibly inspirational upcoming speakers, and we’ve some ‘meet the trustees’ sessions too.

PilotsTogether offers wellbeing support for our registered pilots, too, in the form of phone calls with fully-trained volunteers, all airline pilots themselves, who have stepped forward to help build our community of pilots. We have some incredibly exciting upcoming plans for the future, and we look forward to sharing these with our community soon. Community and wellbeing is integral to what we do as a charity, and we will be working hard to make our community continue to be a strong and supportive one.

If you haven’t already done so and you have been made redundant from a UK based airline, please do consider registering with PilotsTogether; this will enable us to keep you updated with news and events that are going on. If you are still working but would like to keep up to date with future events and news, simply register to receive our newsletters.

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