Where did the last two years go? It seems only yesterday that we were talking about the discovery of a new virus in China. And while markets across the globe have since broadly re-opened, for Asia-based flightcrew like myself, Covid-19 and its disruptions to life are still an ever-present reality.
Airlines in the region are still fighting to keep the lights on and maximise revenues. Meanwhile crews – those lucky enough to still have employment – are either not flying at all or operating far less frequently than they used to, for far less money than previously.
In parallel, pilots are forced to deal with the massively increased stress levels brought on by the pandemic and its various rules and regulations. Masks, face shields, reams of paperwork, endless Covid tests – all have become part of our everyday routine. On top of which is the ever-present threat of being pulled away from work and family into forced isolation, simply due to a close contact – your fellow crew, for instance – testing positive.
Is this the new normal? Well, I certainly hope not. This has been going on since 2020 – how much longer will pilots and cabin crew be able to endure these stresses and strains?
But if this is the new reality, how do we deal with it? From my perspective there are a few key takeaways to help manage the situation.
Top of the list is dealing with stress: you either control it or it controls you. Maintain your social network, take time out to enjoy life with friends and family, and most important of all, don’t worry about the things which you can’t control. Plan for the unknown perhaps, but don’t fear it or you’ll end up living in a state of constant anxiety. Learn to keep stress at bay especially when you go flying, if not, your mental capacity is reduced, potentially causing sub-par decision making.
Another issue to address is around flying skills. Over the last decade of my flying career I haven’t had as much time out of the cockpit as I have in the past two years. Skill fade or proficiency decay is very real, no matter how experienced you are. Over long periods of reduced activity or inactivity, our motor skills or muscle memory gets worse; tasks take longer than before to accomplish or, at worst, we experience cognitive overload.
It is vital to not lose your touch: chair flying or time in a simulator or flight-training device will aid your recovery immensely.
Although I am still flying – albeit to a much reduced schedule – I find myself doing tasks more slowly than usual and having to check my actions again to make sure nothing is missed. If flying twice a month does that to you, imagine the effect of being grounded for a year or more.
Aviation safety relies on a swathe of professionals – flight-crew, engineers, ground staff, air traffic controllers – working together seamlessly and performing their roles in a safe manner. With the human element playing such a vital role in ensuring the smooth running of this system, Covid-19 poses a significant health and safety threat.
As pilots we are all trained to identify threats, manage risk, to look out for hazards and report them. But how can it be managed if we can’t see it or measure it? No-one ever talks about mental health openly, as it is still such a taboo topic in the aviation industry. But this Covid-related stress has severely impacted some who are seriously affected by it.
It is easy to see here that as our resilience or defences weaken – to the disease or the additional pressures it imposes – the Swiss Cheese model is in play; let’s not become the final slice that lines up with all the others. We need to protect ourselves and look out for those around us. This will inevitably mean being more resilient with a can-do attitude, looking after your mental health and skills and mitigating skill-fade.
Ultimately it is all about being vigilant, flying safely and being happy in general. If nothing else, this pandemic has reminded us of that.
Senior First Officer Ashwin Ram operates the Airbus A330 (and previously the A350) and is a ground training instructor and safety auditor for an Asia-based carrier.