The World Health Organization (WHO) stated that COVID-19 is no longer a global health emergency. Let’s take a look back at how the pandemic affected the aviation industry.
In March 2021, AviationSource released a book called “Aviation & COVID-19“, where we documented what the effect of the pandemic was on each individual segue of aviation.
The book particularly looked at the time period of March 2020-2021.
Over the course of today, each Chapter from the book will be released for our audience to read for free.
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
Aviation & COVID-19 Chapter 4: The Workers
One element of the industry that has not particularly been covered that much is the workers. They are the lifeblood that makes the industry operate as smoothly as it does.
Data from ACI in September 2020 shows that up to 4.8 million jobs could be lost in 2021 due to the pandemic, with a further 46 million at risk of loss (ACI, 2020).
“Our analysis shows that up to 4.8 million jobs in aviation may be lost by the beginning of next year, a 43% reduction from pre-COVID levels.”
“When you expand those effects across all the jobs aviation would normally support, 46 million jobs are at risk. These include highly-skilled aviation roles, the wider tourism jobs impacted by the lack of air travel and employment throughout the supply chain in construction, catering supplies, professional services, and all the other things required to run a global transport system.” – Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group, Michael Gill
The people that work in this industry need to be heard more; hence I am hoping that this chapter will do that.
Earlier this year, AviationSource got to speak with former Norwegian Air flight dispatcher Dan Cooney about him losing his job in July 2020 as well as the airline’s decision to suspend long-haul operations earlier in 2021.
JF: Dan, thanks for speaking to me in the wake of what has happened. Explain to me your situation and how the announcement of the long-haul exodus has affected everyone you know who works there.
DC: I got made redundant back at the end of July last year. However, any news on Norwegian I obviously listen very closely and see what is happening because there was the chance that when things got better, I could potentially go back.
I know that at the time, Norwegian was hoping to start long-haul again, back in March this year. And they were actively selling tickets to New York, Los Angeles, et cetera. They were putting in place the schedule.
So, when the news about the long-haul exodus came, it was sad. We all knew we probably were not going to get through this totally unscathed. Something was probably going to have to give. We did not know what, but we were expecting something, but just seeing it clarified and confirmed just makes it harder.
I have come to terms with being made redundant. However, it was difficult watching all my friends who were getting made redundant last week [January 2021], when the news came. We were all talking to each other and reminiscing about the good old times and what we used to do, including having a laugh just before we took place the doors for departure, et cetera. It was hard, but it was nice to rekindle some of those memories.
JF: Was the news from Norwegian a surprise for you and your colleagues?
DC: I know Norwegian’s not been in the best place for the last couple of years financially. But we were on track to have the best year ever in 2020 and were going to make some money.
We would have been in quite a good position, really, because of Jacob Schram. He was very tough, and he was very business orientated.
He did not really have a lot of background when it came to aviation, but he was known for turning companies around and making them profitable. So, he was doing that. He was doing it, and it was evident.
Schram was concerned at first about cutting back as much of the product as possible before the damage went onto the employees.
I flew with the company once from London to New York. In the time of such cutbacks, they would have breakfast in the morning, and then they would not have lunch before they landed.
So, the cutbacks at the time were going to just one meal service on such flights. That would, of course, save money. It was neat. He has done the best job he could do in the wake of everything that has happened.
JF: What was it like working for Norwegian? What was the culture like? Was it, you know, was it like what people would say is very sort of family-orientated because, based on your answers, it does seem like you are quite a close and tight-knit family of people working with you?
DC: It is by far the biggest family you could ever imagine. Even when the days were rubbish, and there were weather delays, and you sat on the ground for two hours, and passengers are complaining, et cetera, you could always go to it whoever you wanted at the airline and just de-stress.
It was brilliant. Because I was based at Gatwick and obviously had the Gatwick base flight crew, you got to know people well, and we all live within the same sort of area of West Sussex, et cetera.
We would all go out on nights out and meet up at the pub. It was an amazing culture.
JF: Do you feel the issues with the Boeing 787 and the 737 MAX were a contributing factor to the position of the airline today?
DC: Massively, they have had a huge effect on our business, even pre-COVID.
A lot of us used to say that Norwegian has got the worst luck because of the problem with the Dreamliner engines as well as the grounding of the MAX too.
As a result, we had to wet-lease aircraft from different airlines, which hurt our reputation a bit more, especially as the product is not up to the same standard that you would see on a Norwegian flight. So, it was a plethora of things that made things more difficult for us.
JF: Do you think Norwegian would have had better success if the problems had not appeared with the aircraft? Do you also think that the airline should have gone for the Airbus A350 instead of the 787 to produce a better rate of durability and success?
DC: When I started working at the airline, I was told that initially, the airline was supposed to go for the A350, but they could not at the time as they wanted to go into the long-haul market quickly.
With delays occurring with the A350, they opted for the 787 as it would become available quicker.
They would have loved to have had the A350 because it was more powerful, it could lift more cargo and payload. So, it would have been a different circumstance had the airline gone to the A350.
JF: Do you think that Norwegian will ever return to long-haul? And with that in mind, do you think they would switch it over to the A350 from the B787?
DC: Maybe in five years’ time, when they are a bit more financially stable that they might revisit the idea of going back to the long haul.
They might take the Dreamliner back on because they know that they can, they know that the passengers were attracted to the aircraft and the product that it offered, so it probably is a safer bet now, even with the issues surrounding the Dreamliner.
But again, this is purely speculative, and the decision does like with Schram over this.
JF: Is there anything else that you wish to say to our readers regarding Norwegian and its approaches, especially going into the future?
DC: Norwegian was not just an airline. It was a family. You would not have changed anything for it because the people there were just the most incredible people that you had ever met.
And they were from all walks of life. You know, we would have people fly and commute, even though they were based at Gatwick. They would even fly from Amsterdam or commute from Madrid.
They had come in from all over the world just so they could fly and work for the company. That was pure dedication and pure love for the industry and the love for the company.
We all became the so-called red-nose warriors because we were the ones that were trying to push and drive the company toward success.
There was even a Facebook group that was made to support the airline, as well as petitions from passengers, launching crowdfunding campaigns to stop the airline from going bust.
All I will say is that we need to all work hard to make sure the airline survives, even if I am not working for them right now.
With people trying to support us, we really will try and do our absolute best to get back to where we were pre-COVID. We just need the world to cooperate.
AviationSource also got the chance to speak with Jonathan Sivarajah, another victim of redundancy because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He worked at Menzies Aviation from August 2018 to July 2020 as a Passenger Service Agent and Ticket Desk Agent. We asked him some questions about his experiences with redundancy due to the pandemic.
JF: When were you made redundant and from what company?
JS: In July 2020, I was made unemployed from Menzies Aviation at London City Airport after almost two years of working as a Customer Service Agent and then as a Ticket Desk Agent for BA CityFlyer.
I was employed by Menzies Aviation in August 2018, and in order to be granted a redundancy, you have to have been in the company for at least two years.
Subsequently, I was a mere two weeks from completing two years of service and henceforth was not classified as a redundancy.
I have been in Aviation, Travel, and Tourism for almost 8 years, beginning my journey at 16 years old, working for my father’s tour operator.
I have mastered a range of roles ranging from ground handling, sales, and marketing development, account management, media planning, and events management, as well as scheduling and operations.
Companies include Lightline Pilgrimages, Swissport, EL AL Israel Airlines, Flight Directors, Travel Daily Media, and Menzies Aviation.
During this period, I also worked on a project basis offering sales and marketing services for organizations such as Travelmole, Philippine Airlines, the Institute of Directors, and a range of tourism boards and travel agencies.
JF: What was the culture like at that business?
JS: Menzies Aviation credit, due to them, displayed the characteristics commonly associated with ground handling agencies.
Utilitarian, efficient, and regimented.
I have actively campaigned and advocated for the recognition of ground-handling agencies during the pandemic for their consistent support for the industry where coverage was shown elsewhere.
Working for a ground handling agency can unnerve new entrants.
For many, it is the first opportunity they have to be introduced to the industry and develop valuable first-hand skills and knowledge that cannot be obtained in a classroom.
British Airways is the sole client of Menzies Aviation at London City Airport, and being such a key airline at the airport, the staff are all uniformed and trained to the highest of British Airways brand standards.
However, in terms of the working culture, working with one product could induce a brand identity crisis for employees.
Wearing the uniform, handling the flights, interacting with the crew, and representing the brand all encompass a feeling of belonging when in fact, on contract, we were not directly employed by the airline.
This ultimately lead many, including myself, to believe that one day, we would have the same opportunities, rights, and privileges as a member of staff employed directly by the airline.
In summary, false hopes could inevitably lead to disappointment.
Nevertheless, being such a small team in a small airport created a family feeling.
This family feeling was also created on the foundation of recognizing that we all had the same rights and opportunities as one another, and we worked as a team to, in summary, get the job done and do it properly.
JF: What aspect of the job do you miss the most?
JS: Working in a customer service environment, you are constantly surrounded by people. Working for a ground handling agency and representing an airline can be synonymous with being an actor on a stage.
Your character is the airline you represent, your costume is the uniform, and the check-in desk is your stage. One of the key things that I miss the most about the job is the interaction with the public.
It is incredibly immersive, you come across so many different people with different mannerisms, behaviors, attitudes, and habits.
Tailoring your delivery and stance to match and complement those traits is an art that not many workplaces can teach.
The role itself is akin to a personal development session. Addressing yourself after every interaction, questioning what went wrong, what could I do better, how you came across, and how you want to come across.
These interpersonal skills can take years to develop and perfect.
Travel for many is a key event in their lives, whether you are 10 years old or 100, every journey is a unique one and comes with its challenges.
Humans are naturally very judgemental people and are quick to make assumptions about one another based on characteristics such as body language, facial expressions, clothing, sexuality, ethnicity, faith, and socio-economic background.
But inevitably, you do not know anything about that individual until they hand you their passport and speak to you.
Each person is unique and is full of surprises, whether that would be good or bad, and it is the element of surprise, and managing their expectations in reverse is what I miss the most about the job.
JF: Do you believe that you will get that job back, as 2024 is slated for recovery?
JS: As much as I would like to believe that I would have the opportunity to return to my former role, I am doubtful of the possibility.
This is because of the recent advances in technology and capabilities, which have been fast-tracked as a result of the pandemic. In order to understand this, one must understand the role of the ticketing or reservations agent.
Only until very recently, airline tickets were issued in paper format and were issued with the help of stacks of books, fare guidelines, and rules in order to issue them properly.
GDS systems such as Amadeus, Sabre, and Travelport interpret the same features to issue a paper ticket with a series of complicated entries but on a computer.
As a ticket desk agent, your role is to support the operation by resolving ticketing issues, changing flights for customers, redirecting flights in times of disruption, and handling a wide array of queries.
Although this skill is still so valuable to the ground operations of an airline, many airlines during the pandemic have developed technologies that have subsequently eradicated the need for the ticket desk agent and, soon, sadly, the customer service agent.
Airlines are slowly leaning towards a centralized approach to customer service where a handful of people in a head office or service center will handle all ticketing inquiries, but even this could soon be at risk.
For example, if you have access to an airline’s app, it just takes a couple of minutes to issue a refund, change a flight or pay for an upgrade.
Whilst the airline industry itself takes years to change and develop, it has been made obvious that the world of technology changes much faster for the needs of the modern world.
JF: Did you expect the redundancy to happen?
JS: In March 2020, London City Airport closed, ceasing all commercial operations.
I will never forget light-heartedly saying to my colleagues on the last day, “A week off, see you next week guys” famous last words. No one could prepare us for what was about to happen.
As the months passed, I saw many airlines letting go of their staff and mothballing aircraft, it was only a matter of time until the ground handling agents felt the pressure.
In June or July, we were told that redundancies would be made and jobs would be at risk.
By this point, it was no surprise. Ground Handling Agents are often remunerated per flight handled, I am not aware of the contract that Menzies had with its client carriers, but a significant number of people were made unemployed as a result of the pandemic.
JF: What would you like to say to those who have lost their jobs in the industry?
JS: To many, airport work was their life.
Coming into work, escaping the pressures of home, putting on their uniform, and shedding skin of personal life.
However, that may be to come into work and focus on a passionate endeavor in their careers.
Working the front line every day brings a new situation with a variety of challenges, each with its own characteristics and difficulty, and the same can be applied in life and specifically to Covid-19.
One of the things you are advised when applying for these roles is to have a degree of emotional and physical resilience.
However, nothing could prepare you emotionally and mentally for the repercussions of the pandemic. Dreams, aspirations, and prospective careers shattered.
The worst thing you can say to someone is, “I know how you feel,” because we truly cannot comprehend and relate to each individual situation as each and every one of us are on our own path.
But what I can say this pandemic has brought an odd sense of unity and has brought out the best and worst in people.
These times are telling, you will recognize figures of an industry that were there to support, give empathy, and praise everyone affected and those that have turned a blind eye, proceeding with ignorance and arrogance.
Watch this space.
I would like to say to my industry peers whether you were in the offices, control towers, ramp, galley, or check-in areas, you are not alone.
In a world where we have become further apart than ever, the simplest of actions, such as checking in with someone and maintaining dialogue, is so especially important.
The one good thing I can say is that this pandemic has induced a “level playing field”. No job is more important or senior than another.
I have always said in my rhetoric that it does not matter if you are a CEO, managing director, dispatcher, or check-in agent, look back at your achievements and value yourself.
It is extremely easy to jump on LinkedIn to watch other industry figure progress with their careers unaffected by envy which can be the worst feeling ever.
But be humbled by the experience and knowledge that you have accumulated and look at these events as a whole new beginning built on the foundations of a strong and meaningful past.
We can never forget what we went through, nor can we ignore the hours of hard work that we contributed to ensuring the world’s airlines remain operational, but we can take that in our stride to make it a whole lot better when it all opens up again.
Stay true to yourself, do not stay silent, and do not let anyone belittle or shower you with sympathy because you are not just finished quite yet.
Now’s the time to refocus, rebuild, learn, and develop, setting the example for the up-and-coming future aviation professional.
What remains clear here is that Jonathan and Dan are both enthusiastic about an industry they both love very dearly. It will obviously be the case that when the industry recovers, they will be more likely to enter a similar job to what they have previously worked at.
It is very tough at the minute, which is why the hope is for recovery to be initiated any quicker, and that is what is needed. It is not just about jobs, but it is about the enthusiasm and love for the industry, which makes it as successful as it is.