The percentage of staff currently in place to meet needs over the next 18 months, was 72% for pilots, followed by Maintenance and Tech Ops staff at 70%. At the bottom at just 61% was cabin staff, with ground staff levels at 63% of expected needs according to the survey. Aviation organizations are undertaking a number of actions to address the challenges according to a panel consisting of representatives of airlines, air navigation services providers (ANSPs), ground handlers, and maintenance organizations.
The challenges of finding new workers appears to be most acute in maintenance and ground handling. David Barker, who oversees Dnata’s airport operations worldwide, said that in most US markets, a job at Starbucks pays a higher wage than a starting ramp agent at, for example, New York’s JFK airport. “How do we bring back aviation as a profession?” he asked. Fortunately, he noted that in other markets such as Brazil, aviation is still seen as a career, and hiring is less of a challenge.
For Christian Klein, Executive VP of the US-based Aeronautical Repair Station Association (ARSA), the workforce challenge was around even before COVID hit. Problems include a lack of “basic technical proficiency in the entry level workforce” as high school curriculums are overwhelmingly focused on college preparation not vocational skills. Another issue is outdated federal training requirements that ask potential mechanics to master technically obsolete skills. Additionally, because US airlines have outsourced so much of their maintenance to third parties, the majority of jobs in MRO are outside an airline, raising career path issues.
Michelle Bishop, Director of Programmes for CANSO, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization, said that for ANSPs, the challenges coming out of COVID tended to be more about skills retention rather than hiring, as workloads dropped dramatically in line with the collapse in flights. Now controllers have to reskill to be ready for the surge in demand. She noted, however, that ANSPs are struggling with gender diversity and minority representation in the workforce. This was a shared concern among all the panel participants
United Airlines Managing Director Aviation Safety Robert Thomas noted that the airline lost around 1,000 pilots to early retirements during the COVID crisis, representing some 30,000 years of experience. The airline has ambitious plans to hire over 5,000 pilots in 2022-23 and is not having a challenge sourcing people. He did note that United has put in place a number of training programs to build the workforce.
The necessity of offering career paths and job dignity to keep employees was a common refrain. “People want a sense of dignity in their work,” Thomas said. “We’re asking people to spend 30 years with us.”
Bishop offered a unique perspective as she pointed out that ANSPs tend to be national monopolies that therefore limit the opportunity for employees to go elsewhere.