In the latest of our series, FlightGlobal takes a view from behind the cockpit door with an opinion from Captain Alan Bamford, an A320 training captain for a large European carrier.
Right now, there are two kinds of pilots. Those who have been made redundant and those at risk. Whichever group you fall into, the past few months will have been a rollercoaster ride. You probably struggled with feelings of devastating loss, helplessness and lack of purpose, especially if this was the first time you’ve experienced a downturn. Then you accepted the situation and tried to plan for every eventuality. After all, that’s what pilots do. Project ahead as far as possible, identify problems and find ways to mitigate them.
When airlines began parking their fleets, I started thinking about other careers. But rather than feeling prepared and reassured, I identified more problems than opportunities. However, I’m fortunate enough to have a career coach in my circle of friends. Talking about my situation helped me pinpoint why I feel so uncomfortable right now and think more constructively about my future. Their advice was simple and surprising: not everything has to be permanent or long term, be prepared to try something new, and don’t talk yourself out of opportunities.
I also got some homework: write a skill-based CV and talk to people outside aviation about their jobs. The former helped me realise just how many transferrable skills we have, the latter showed me we don’t just hold our own: pilots really do have market-leading transferrable skills that can solve genuine problems in other sectors.
The issue is how we sell ourselves to people and organisations that know very little about what we actually do. It is easy to list areas of strength such as resilience, leadership, communication, time management, problem solving, and so on, but generic statements don’t do our training and experience justice. Just like a briefing, saying what you can do isn’t enough. It’s all about the how.
Take leadership for example. I often hear friends with 9 to 5 jobs complaining of micromanaging bosses. Why is it that captains feel confident allowing an inexperienced first officer to handle a 70t jet while others outside the flightdeck struggle to delegate the photocopying? Pilots are used to delegating significant responsibility, and it works because the pilot making that decision has clearly defined the boundaries of an acceptable performance and rehearsed how they will intervene if things don’t go to plan. This approach is easily transferrable to other roles.
Communication is an obvious strength, but again the devil is in the detail. Recruiters may not appreciate that we fly with completely different crews every day. Each time we report, we build an effective team from scratch. We build rapport, find points of empathy and common experience and create an atmosphere for open communication. Above all, we know the value of involving team members and giving them a reason to come along with us. We’re also adept at varying our communication style to suit different audiences. Imagine a technical problem delays your departure. Solving it requires communication with several groups of people: flightdeck colleagues, cabin crew, engineers, ground staff and our customers. All require different levels of technical detail, honesty and reassurance. An experienced pilot will have the emotional intelligence to recognise these needs and seamlessly adapt.
Emotional intelligence brings me neatly to our unique selling point. Working in a safety-critical industry gives you specialist training in areas overlooked by many, but which are applicable to all walks of life. Airlines learned about human factors the hard way, and all pilots carry the lessons learned. We have realistic expectations of human behaviour and performance. Mistakes are inevitable, so we focus on learning from them and finding error-tolerant ways of working. Unlike the general public, we have an honest appreciation of risk. We know it can’t be eliminated, merely mitigated and balanced against commercial pressures. We understand the importance of following rules and procedures, but we also know the difference between meaningful compliance and box ticking. Most importantly in these times, we understand the power of organisational culture. We recognise that all employees need to own and shape it, and the change is a long journey that doesn’t happen overnight. These insights will allow pilots to bring value to any organisation.
My only fear is the rest of the world hasn’t caught up and doesn’t know what it’s missing. In this regard, pilots could use some help. I’d like to see unions and professional institutions reaching out to major employers in other sectors, extolling the value of our experience and creating a market for ex-airline labour. For the first time in history, these organisations will be judged not on what they do within the industry, but on how they help their members find employment outside.
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