Anxiety and aviation do not go well together, and though much has been discussed and published on re-instilling confidence in airline passengers in the ramp up to the “new normal”, one phenomenon rarely spoken about in the COVID-19 crisis is the physical and mental effect on those responsible for keeping airplanes in the sky and safe movement on the ground. IATA and CANSO have been running a webinar series on “Navigating the Industry Restart”. Number 3 in that series, held on 09JUL20, looked at “Safety Culture & SMS [Safety Management Systems] During a Pandemic”. Speakers not only discussed procedures but illustrated these soft facts, too, and how they could best be approached.
It was one thing to read about the shutdown in China early this year, and the growing number of global conferences that were being postponed in what at first appeared a temporary disruption. Yet, by March, COVID-19 cases exploded, first in Italy which subsequently led to its shutdown, and then an escalating knock-on effect with a great many other countries closing their borders and imposing quarantines. Aviation trickled to an almost complete standstill, with over 90% of flights grounded. The media was focused on just one topic from then on: Corona and case statistics. For many of us, life ground to a halt and reactions went from shock to disbelief, to fear and worry, even depression. Everyone faced an uncertain future in many respects.
Expect the unexpected
Those involved in aviation – whether they are flight crew or air traffic control – are trained to deal with pressure and crisis, and there are a number of procedures in place, such as IFATCA’s CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management) guidance, for example. This defines a crisis “as an acute emotional reaction to a powerful stimulus or demand” with “Four characteristics:
- The balance between thinking and emotions is disturbed,
- Coping mechanisms fail,
- There is evidence of distress, impairment or dysfunction in those involved in the crisis,
- Exposure alone does not create a crisis. Exposure plus the intense personal relevance of the event may increase the chances of developing a crisis reaction.”
The crises aviation staff deal with are generally individual incidents, where, having practiced in simulations and been drilled on how to react, they are able to avert an accident, or best manage
the particular situation in hand. With regard to mental after-effects, this at most affects a certain number of staff, some of whom may then require time off work to recover from possible
Yet, who could have expected the pandemic and the tsunami of uncertainty and impending economic crisis in its wake? And what happens when the crisis is an ongoing one, affecting everyone in some form or another? What can the back-up plan be then?
Webinar moderator, Jean-Francois Lepage, ICAO Liaison Officer and Air Traffic Controller (ATC) in Montreal, Canada, summarized the current situation in his opening words: “We're under a lot of anxiety at the moment as a consequence of a number of major changes in our habits, in our traffic patterns, procedures, schedules, social interactions, and also private lives. We're all doing our best to cope with this unprecedented crisis. Keeping in mind, our first priority has always to retain ‘safety’. But the pandemic has certainly brought many questions when it comes to safety. How do all these changes affect the way we manage safety? How can we remain productive and maintain safety under these new conditions? How can we make sure we take the best decisions with sometimes very little information available? How do we make sure the communication channels remain open in order to maintain an optimal level of coordination and trust between all stakeholders?”
Whereas by 2019, the overfull skies and ever-increasing air traffic meant that ATCs were often operating at stress-limit, the sudden slump in air travel has caused an entirely different type of stress, with a whole host of contributing factors.
Flexibility whilst maintaining standards
Osman Saafan, Chief Safety and Security Officer & Director Civil-Military Affairs at DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH, pointed out that the ever-changing circumstances required immediate actions and there was almost no time for prior approvals from the necessary authorities in the various scenarios. The priority at all times, however, was the health of employees because “people create safety”. Health referred not only to ensuring precautions against COVID-19 infection were taken – which resulted in further, unforeseen issues, such as clarity of radio communication in the tower when speaking through a face-mask, for example – but also that “there should be no room for fear and anxiety”. Fear and anxiety about losing one’s job, a lack of self-confidence in cases where employees were furloughed for weeks on end, having lost one’s routine at work, worrying about family members, about the situation at large, about an increased risk of accident despite less flights (which has been the case since the pandemic, given the mental stress also affecting pilots and ground staff, often faced with completely new situations such as new destinations / airlines, and changing regulations – though in very few cases have these accidents been attributable to ATC error). Added to this, the inaccessibility to training facilities and postponed refresher training, changing priorities in medical checks and the impact of physical distancing, made staff morale a challenge.
We are all human
The solution was a series of online coaching opportunities, focusing on positive inner talk, self-confidence, visualization, self-awareness – all of which were very well received. Communication with employees at all times was key, along with clear guidance. In the unusual circumstances, with not that many planes to support, the human reaction was to perhaps offer a more personalized service, yet moving away from set rules and procedures creates risk, so the clear message was to stick to the rules at all times. This, in turn, inspires confidence since both ATC and pilots are then working in familiar territory. ATC staff were also encouraged to refuse special requests (such as extra shifts), if they were not feeling physically or mentally capable – it being clear that the current, unusual scenario could lead to personal capacities reaching their limit earlier than pre-Covid.
In the ramp-up to the “new normal”, DFS carried out a thorough risk-assessment, identifying over 30 hazards that require action for a safe return to operations. Communicating these along with the measures being taken, and ensuring communication channels are open and accessible, are all key to instilling confidence at work.
Media – watch your mouth!
Horror-stories sell the most copy. Not a week goes by without reading that this airline or that ground-handler is having to lay off staff. These are facts and unfortunate truths, yet how they are conveyed also plays a role in mental health. Just last week, one publication talked of a particular airline “culling pilots”. The brutality of “cull” in the current situation is far from helpful when it comes to avoiding anxiety in an already stressful work environment.
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