We are just over two years into a global pandemic and experts have suggested that COVID-19 is likely to ‘fade away’ in 2022. While local and seasonal flare-ups of the illness will still occur, and there is still the possibility of new variants, the virus is now expected to become an endemic disease.
However, the pandemic and its catastrophic impact on the aviation sector also had a detrimental effect on the physical and mental health of aviation professionals, including pilots.
But as aviation is back on the path to recovery, has the mental well-being of pilots improved? And what is being done to provide support to those in crisis?
Two years of crisis?
In aviation, mental health and well-being are directly tied to safety. Pilots bear an enormous responsibility as passenger lives depend on the pilots who are flying the aircraft.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, greater attention was starting to be placed on the mental well-being of pilots and discussions were being had across the industry. This sensitive issue was spotlighted following the tragic Germanwings crash, which took place almost seven years ago.
In 2015, Andreas Lubitz, a young co-pilot, deliberately crashed Germanwings’ (which has been rebranded as Eurowings) Airbus A320 aircraft into the French Alps.
After less than two years of investigation, multiple studies revealed that a significant number of airline pilots suffered from depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts but did not seek help for fear of losing their license.
Usually, carriers follow rules pertaining to aeromedical assessment of pilots, as mandated by regulatory bodies such as the FAA or EASA. The health of a commercial airline pilot is assessed every year. Licenses can be suspended if serious health problems, including mental health issues, are detected.
Given the fact that licenses could be at stake, pilots are likely to under report mental health problems and are unlikely to approach professionals for help, the International Journal of Aerospace Psychology reported in 2021.
Mental health issues became even more visible at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since the onset of the global health crisis, pilots across the globe have been made redundant, encountered furloughs and non-existent flight hours, and experienced a loss of income.
Several studies have suggested that global lockdowns resulted in an unprecedented increase in stress, anxiety, and depression compared to pre-pandemic years.
In an emailed report to AeroTime, the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA) outlined the main pandemic-related stressors for pilots. These included chaotic flight schedules, little availability of food in airports, poor arrangements for travel and housing on layovers. In addition to the financial status of certain carriers and the prevalence of lockdowns in some locations, pilots feared contracting COVID-19 and transmitting the illness to family members.
Add to that the various challenges unique to the aviation industry and it will come as little surprise that more than half the pilots involved in a 2021 study (‘Pilot Work Related Stress (WRS), Effects on Wellbeing and Mental Health, and Coping Methods’ published as part of the University of Dublin’s Lived Experience & Wellbeing Project) met a threshold for mild depression in 2021.
A tragic accident, the result of a suspected suicide, was highlighted recently by UK air accident investigators. On September 10, 2021, a trainee pilot of a Cessna 172S took off alone from Rochester Airport in Kent, radioing air traffic control and asking to speak to his instructor so he could inform them that he was planning to take his own life. After an extensive search and rescue, the wreckage of the plane was later found in a farmer’s field.
“Immediately prior to taking off, the pilot had reported over the aircraft radio that he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and indicated that he intended to deliberately crash the aircraft. The pilot had not declared his diagnosis to the doctor who issued his aviation medical certificate,” the AAIB investigators outlined in the report.
Pilots’ mental health in the post-pandemic era
At the start of the pandemic, a shortage of pilots turned into a surplus. But now, as aviation continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry faces a range of challenges, including ramping up staffing and flight rosters as well as preparing for a busy summer ahead.
Katherine Lee, a pilot and Trustee of PilotsTogether (a registered charity created by pilots and their supporters to support UK pilots whose livelihoods have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis), told AeroTime that the pandemic has acted as a reset for the aviation industry, “and the crew have realized that the chronic fatigue with which they had lived for many years wasn’t actually normal”.
Lee said: “Returning to a busy summer, having had time at home with friends and family, and having established a normal sleep cycle, without the effects of jet lag, will be a significant challenge industry wide.”
Pilots who were laid off during the pandemic are currently finding ways back to the cockpit. However, the backdrop of war in Ukraine, rising inflation, and economic uncertainty further highlights the unpredictable nature of the industry.
Not surprisingly, pilots who have returned to full operations feel uncertain about their future in the aviation sector.
According to a report by the Centre for Aviation Psychology (CAP) dated April 2022, the number of peer support cases relating to anxiety concerning confidence and competency following prolonged periods on the ground, minimal flying or difficult sim checks have increased.
The Centre for Aviation Psychology has also observed that pilots who are currently returning to their former employers appear to have “a range of emotions ranging from relief to be flying again to bitter resentment at their treatment during the pandemic”.
“For these individual pilots, the sense of being treated as disposable commodity is more palpable, especially in the light of the uncertainties brought on by the Omicron variant. Their relationship with their employer has been significantly damaged,” the CAP outlined in the report.
Many carriers across the globe are actively trying to employ more pilots, as airlines are ramping up their flight schedules following the pandemic. However, in order to survive economically and return to profitability, many carriers have negotiated significantly reduced terms and conditions with their new employees.
“As operations recover and rosters fill up, many pilots talk of working harder for less,” according to the CAP report. “While many are prepared to tolerate this as their AOCs return to profitability, there is a growing unease that pilots’ employment vulnerability will be exploited for unreasonable economic gain by their employer in the longer term – especially for those pilots who are uncertain of the employment rights.”
Echoing the CAP study findings, Lee said that post-COVID contracts have resulted in lower terms and conditions in many instances, yet the level of debt accrued by pilots during training remains unchanged.
“For those who remained in employment, uncertainty within the industry persists and many airlines have adopted a more mercenary approach to their pilots, meaning that unsettled feeling is still very real for many,” Lee added.
Lee also revealed that uncertainty within the industry, with many airlines looking to use seasonal contracts and self-employed crews, adds to the lack of stability faced by pilots. Furthermore, owing to the persistence of a fairly masculine culture, there has long been a reticence to admit to needing help with mental health challenges, a barrier that urgently needs to be addressed.
What can be done to help pilots reduce mental health pressures?
There is still a stigma attached to open conversations about mental well-being among pilots and there’s still a long way to go to achieve desired results.
According to Lee, pilots are generally a resilient group of people, but the concept of coping with mental health pressures is a fallacy.
“What the industry needs is for pilots to feel supported and empowered to speak up when they are struggling with their mental health,” Lee said.
She added that peer support programs mandated across the United Kingdom are an important part of opening conversations about mental well-being within the industry.
According to a Journal of Aerospace Psychology 2021 report, all stress cannot be removed from the work-life of pilots. However, to tackle the existing pressures and stigma attached to the open conversations about mental health, it is recommended to promote wellbeing culture in the workplace, both at an airline level and pilot self-management level, including while on and off duty.
The report also suggests airline organizations support “pilot training in relation to adopting healthy behaviors, using specific coping strategies, and risk identifying behavior” and increase their support for preventative mental health treatment.
Sometimes it can be challenging for pilots to ask for help, considering they could lose their licenses.
However, Lee added that there are avenues that offer truly impartial advice and a safe place to reach out when it is most needed.
An example of this is the #WePilots text service, which is a fully independent initiative that allows pilots to access trained support in times of crisis. The initiative was set up in 2021 and includes independent volunteers who are available 24/7 to answer texts.
“The service is open to any pilot who needs support in time of crisis,” said Lee.