A turbulent year...
2020. The year that when we look back I think most of us will say 'well what happened there?' It's the year that we covered half of our faces with masks, antibacterial gel became the new black market bestseller, and we locked ourselves behind closed doors for the majority of the Spring. It's the year that let's face it, if dinosaurs walked down the street right now, most of us would probably think it was about right, given the absolute chaos that seems to be surrounding us right now.
It's also the year that within aviation, without knowing it, we were about to face the bumpiest ride of our lives.
Rewind to March. I remember being on flights and speaking with my fellow crew regarding the COVID-19 situation, and the general consensus was that we would all probably have a couple of weeks on the ground, but we would probably be back before you could say 'Don Pedro' (top tip, if you're ever in South Africa, this is what you need to be asking for). After all, we'd survived the crisis following 9/11, SARS, MERS, Ebola, the financial crash, the ash cloud... this was surely going to be no different. Many of us joked that we should take pictures just in case it was our last flight for a while. After all, most of us are used to turbulence, both metaphorical and literal, and that is what we hoped this would be.
What didn't dawn on many people, was that it was potentially going to be the last flight for a very long while, for some, it would be the last one ever. The following five months were to be the toughest test of strength, perseverance, character, and to an extent, luck, that we had ever faced.
With over 80% of flights restricted in the month of April, and a 91% decrease in passenger air traffic, it became clear that the expanding workforce of the aviation industry, was likely to not be required for a very long time. Picture this, just 8 months ago, we were discussing the likelihood of a pilot shortage. Nobody, saw this coming. In the UK, airlines used the Government supported Job Retention Scheme in order to ensure employees would receive proportions of their salary, whilst the airlines were battling for survival, however it became clear that to face the 'new normal' (a term I have grown to flinch at during this pandemic), sadly, the industry was going to have to reshape to be fit for purpose in the post-pandemic era.
This brings me to the purpose of this post. The consequences of the pandemic suddenly became deeply personal for myself and my colleagues. Job cuts, pay cuts, changing terms and conditions to contracts, and the never ending uncertainty of what losing your job in the middle of a pandemic was actually going to mean for future job prospects, kept most people awake at night. The mental well-being of those within the industry was hugely compromised.
I don't think I know a single aviation professional who could say that right now, their mental well-being was at the best it could be. Whether that be because they have sadly lost their job, and now face endless worry about when they will next receive a payslip, never mind return to the profession that they love so deeply, or they are someone who has kept their job now feeling 'survivors guilt'; having had close colleagues leave their organisation, or someone who has had to accept a second job in a key worker role to make ends meet, compromising their rest time. Every, single, person has and continues to be affected. Our communities are currently being torn apart and it's heartbreaking to see some of the consequences of the pandemic.
For me, the world has thrown me a pretty awful hand recently, and I'm not ashamed to say that my mental well-being has not been at it's usual best. I've questioned absolutely everything about my life. I've always played 'by the rules'. I worked immensely hard in my academic life, achieving a set of near perfect GCSE/A level grades. Despite working tirelessly, I had to say goodbye to my previous dream at 21, and I re-designed a life that I was so proud of, following the other half of my heart into my dream of working in aviation. I have worked above and beyond at every company I've been a part of, sacrificing so much to achieve professional success. I achieved a scholarship for my undergraduate degree, which I completed whilst operating a full time flying roster (many thanks to my University for accommodating my timetable, and some very good friends who dragged me through), and then the universe throws a pandemic into the mix. And truly this is the beginning of what I've had to battle over the last 5 years...
Thanks to this, I've had many a moment of 'what is the point if life keeps throwing constant knock-backs in my path?'. I’m an incredibly positive person, but this last five months has tested my mindset to the limit. And I know that i'm not alone in feeling this way.
The mental health and well-being of aviation professionals has long concerned me, even pre-pandemic. Partly because I care deeply about the people I surround myself with, and partly because of my interest in the human element of the safety of operations within aviation. We are often away from home for periods of time, sacrificing time with our family and friends and missing special occasions. It can look to the outsider that we live the best lives, landing into glamorous locations and hotels, and for a lot of the time, it truly is an amazing life. However the job involves periods of loneliness, intense pressure from being a part of one of the most heavily regulated professions in the world, and all whilst battling jet lag, fatigue, and the general worries of belonging to an industry that is increasingly volatile; often being the most heavily impacted by world affairs. It takes a strong individual to manage a long and healthy career in aviation, and like all people, we're only human. Life will at some point present itself with one extra concern, that will disrupt the balance of our precarious balancing act.
All of this, has led to so many of my fellow aviators saying to me 'I just don't feel worthy'. Those applying for new jobs are struggling to get past the initial stages of applications due to the sheer volume of applicants per job role, and moreover persuading employers that they are more than 'just a trolley dolly', or even 'just a pilot'. 730,000 jobs were lost between April and June in the UK, meaning there is intense competition for each role, and many applicants are more than over qualified for the roles that they are applying for, meaning that employers have the pick of a ripe bunch.
BUT. As a member of crew I'm here to remind you that you ARE worthy, you ARE special, and you WILL overcome all of this. Here's a little reminder as to why in case you need it today.
Remember you have managed to achieve the almost impossible and become part of this sky family. It's rumored that it is more difficult to become a member of cabin crew than it is to gain successful entry into some of the world's most prestigious Universities. You did that! You, because of who you are, achieved that. Whether you're a pilot who's dedicated their entire life to achieving their wings, or cabin crew who has spent years applying for your job at the dream airline, you did it. You are clearly resilient; many people apply over and over again for their dream airlines, and our resilience is what gets us through the most difficult of flights. This isn't to say however that is okay to accept our resilience as an excuse to not provide and offer adequate support. In fact there needs to be more emphasis on encouraging crew to speak out, and answer truthfully about how we are feeling. A non-punitive culture is being developed, and peer support programs are being established to ensure crew have somewhere to turn to, but this tool needs to be increased and emphasized as a perfectly acceptable option for crew. Remember, it is okay to not be okay!
You can work at any time of the day and night, whilst looking immaculate, and still sort out any number of seating issues, meal requests, complaints, and even fly through a pandemic, still smiling behind that new addition to your uniform; the mask. You have proven you're intelligent, and can use your initiative. You have proven you are respectful and well-cultured; flying people of all nationalities, religions, and faiths around the world, adapting your service to ensure that every single person regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality is respected and treated equally. You have proven that you can be a firefighter, nurse, counselor, comedian, children's entertainer, fine-dining host, security officer, a team player, a leader.... the list is endless of what you can do so never, ever feel worthless. Still not sure what skills you bring to the table? You are crew because of who you are, not who you are because you are crew. You. Are. Worthy.
In the meantime what else can we do? Whilst we wait for the industry we love to bounce back and for us all to be reunited. Let's face it, I don't think any of us will be happy until we are all back where we belong, whether you've been a COVID-19 redundancy casualty, or you are now experiencing flying without your friends around you thanks to the above.... it's going to be an incredibly rough few months ahead. For me, my family and friends have been a god-send through this. I'm lucky to have been blessed with a family and friendship group that truly are my biggest fans and cheerleaders. Whatever crazy idea I come up with, they're there on the front row cheering me on, and picking me up when I fall. They are always asking me 'how are you feeling today?' and they truly want the answer. If any good comes out of this situation it's to encourage a more open culture in regards to speaking out about your mental health. Please speak out, speak to someone you trust be it a peer supporter, counselor, or best friend, anyone, but do not suffer alone. I'm here if you need, and have your back. Just do not suffer alone.
If you're thinking about what to do next after having your wings clipped, you probably know that you have some decisions to make. For most, it will be a case of initially finding something that keeps a roof over your head. Especially for those who are in holding pools, or planning on waiting it out until recovery begins and recruitment starts again.... and I'm a true believer in that if you want it, the industry will want you again. People will travel again, we know that the world is too incredible to not experience it, so don't give up hope. Equally you could find that this time out of the industry is useful for exploring other avenues for example setting up a home business, or going back into education. Don't feel as though if you commit to study, you can't then return to flying if you're called back quicker than your graduation date. I've flown through my undergraduate degree and managed to achieve a 2:1, and am now beginning my MSc Human Factors in Aviation. Universities have options such as part-time, and distance learning, as well as a range of loans and funding to make it achievable. Drop me a message at any time if you want to discuss what studying as a working mature student is really like!
Our skills within aviation are also relevant to so many industries. Not only are we impeccable customer service candidates, we make good managers (in particular those who have worked as purser or equivalent, and of course flight deck where the role also of being a pilot involves managing the personnel onboard an aircraft). Many crew go on to work in events roles, education roles, sales.... the list is endless of what you could do with the skills learnt from your role in the skies and that's before you add in any additional skills and qualifications you may have. Make a list of roles you might potentially be interested in, and take time to research each one in depth. My advice really here is don't rush into something, make sure it's right for you, and protect your heart; you've been through enough this year.
Of course, it may be the case that moving on at all simply isn't an option, as your head is in the clouds and heart is firmly in the skies. Many people will not understand why you're so desperate to return, but some of your family and friends will have been with you at every step of the journey to the skies, and their hearts will be breaking for you. The reality is that flying will always be a part of who you are. It will define a large part of your life. Because being an aviator will never leave you. In what other job can you chase the sunset across the world at 40,000 feet? In what other world can you sit in the galley with your friends who you met just hours ago, and put the world to right whilst the world around you is sleeping? In what other life do you witness engagements, anniversaries, honeymoons, holidays of a lifetime, births, and any other chance to make a small part of someone's life, the most memorable? The truth is that unless you've lived the life of an aviator, it's hard to understand why we want to cling on to this life; however one thing is for sure, it most certainly is not a job, it's a lifestyle... so if you want it, my advice to you is to never give up. It may feel like an age away from your dream right now, but when we look back in years to come, it will hopefully just look like a very short chapter in your long aviation career. It's not a crime to have a dream, but it is a crime to have a dream, and to not fight for it with every little bit of your heart and soul.
This isn't so much a blog on how to survive this situation, or to tell you what the right path is for you. I do hope that it opens up the conversation regarding how we are feeling, and helps to normalize conversations within our industry regarding mental health and well -being. Remember however you are feeling, you're not alone, and even in your darkest hours, you will always have someone to turn to. Me. I will be here for you all, like everybody has been for me. After all, we are all connected, because for some of us out there, we are born with the skies within our souls. x
EAP: many airlines will have an EAP system in place, and I would encourage all to explore the services on offer here, which includes advice related to mental well-being, and through to financial services
Peer Support Programmes: similarly to EAP, many airlines offer a network of peer supporters, or even mental health first aiders that are contactable to speak to confidentially about any mental well-being issues.