Pilots are preparing to come back to work as soon as possible, with international borders open and flights very slowly returning to normal. But what challenges do these pilots face flying post-pandemic?

As vaccination rates increase and borders reopen for international travel, pilots are expected to be needed back at work over the coming months. Global travel rates are recovering and the demand for pilots is preceding passenger travel demands.

It is essential that airlines assess the readiness and confidence of their pilots as they get ready to return to the skies.

COVID-19 hit airlines hard

We all know that the airline industry was hit hard by COVID-19. As the pandemic unfolded, the number of flights began to reduce, and so too did the shifts for pilots and crew. Some pilots have now been furloughed for almost two years.

Pilots have acutely felt the stresses of the global pandemic. As Avlaw Aviation Consulting founder Ron Bartsch has noted in a recent interview with Smart Aviation Asia-Pacific:

Pilots by their very nature are people who like to be in control of the current situation. Flying is a lot about standard operating procedures, routine, standardization… But with COVID, you are no longer necessarily in control of the situation and there is now so much uncertainty.

Ensuring pilot competence and suitability

The uncertainty of this period may have taken a heavy toll on pilots. After such a long break, returning pilots will be required to undertake training and demonstrate they have not lost the skills necessary to work.

These tests will help ensure that skills are current and competencies have not been lost.

But it is not only core competencies that should be assessed. The psychological impact of this stressful period also needs to be understood.

Mistakes pose real risk

Having two years away from any job or activity would likely see some degree of loss of proficiency and competence. Ron told Smart Aviation Asia Pacific there is a chance that pilots’ flying skills may no longer be up to speed with what their expectations are. Qantas has already reportedly found their own pilots making mistakes after long periods without flying.

The consequences when pilots make a mistake at work can have a significant impact on safety. A large aviation accident would be a disaster for a struggling industry already besieged by COVID-19.

Fully cognisant of this risk, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Air Transport Association and national regulators have published guides on the best way to help pilots get back to their jobs safely. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) in Australia also say they are “continually looking for ways to help affected pilots return to duty”.

Demand for pilots will increase

Despite the challenges face by pilots flying post-pandemic, it is more than likely that in the coming years, there will be an increased demand for pilots.. Hence, it is unsurprising that around 62% of flight operation managers say that a primary risk will be a pilot shortage.

There are many reasons why pilots may not return to the inudstry. Some may have retired. Others may have found alternative work during the pandemic. There may be pilots who simply do not want to return to the skies.

Airlines can act now to reconnect, engage with and support returning pilots, to ensure there are good levels of recommencement and retention.

Having a strategy for future needs, and supporting new students and graduates will also be critical.