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The impact of the pandemic in aviation: the psychological perspective

15 April 2020
Lockdowns can save lives and are considered best practice in crisis response. However, depending on circumstances, some lockdowns may produce anxiety, stress, and traumatic symptoms in airline pilots. Do these effects have a consequence in airline operations?

The spreading of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has important implications for airlines and their customers.

According to ICAO* "diseases such as COVID-19 pose a risk to the travelling public because they can be transmitted between humans. Therefore, it is important that all involved stakeholders assist in limiting its spread by air transport. ICAO, ACI, CANSO, IATA, TIACA, WFP and WHO have worked in close cooperation in the development of this single source for aviation-specific guidelines with the objective of ensuring appropriate planning and action at all levels in order to mitigate the effects of a human outbreak".

The response of the aviation sector has been instantaneous and effective having had to face similar crises in the past such as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS in 2003.  In that case, the sector also responded effectively in order to mitigate the risk. 

With particular regard to airline crew (as well as the ground staff), ICAO has adopted several measures in accordance with the main guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the management of  COVID-19 cases facing aviation operations.

In such circumstances, airport operators, aircraft operators, airlines, and airports should provide guidance to crew and ground staff about recognising the signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Crew and ground personnel should be further reminded about measures to prevent transmission of COVID-19, including social distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette,environmental cleaning, waste disposal, when and how to use a mask, avoidance of contact with people presenting respiratory symptoms, and seeking medical advice early if signs and symptoms develop. Additionally, crew should also be informed about the management of a suspected case on board an aircraft. 

Does this guidance cover every issue relating to the coronavirus?

The evolution of air transportation, combined with consumer sensitivity, social media and political pressures create additional human factors that need to be taken into account. 

The study of human factors involves applying scientific knowledge about the human body and mind to help understand human capabilities and limitations. A greater understanding of these factors can be used to reduce the likelihood of errors and build more error tolerant and more resilient systems.

According to a colleague of mine who is both a pilot and a recognised 'human factor' expert and Psychological Counsellor, human factors could be crucial as aviation activities continue to be performed under  critical conditions.  

  1. For pilots who are currently still working, the first factor of stress is the actual change in the work environment: the new policies put in place concerning protection of crews and passengers has seen the introduction of new measures which can possibly interfere in a pilot’s routine and in his feeling completely at ease in the workplace. This includes the use of protective masks even during long work hours considering that the “protective social distance” inside the cockpit cannot be possibly maintained. You could also factor in the use of disposable gloves, having to disinfect  repeatedly with chemical substances.Disruption of safety routines could be a factor: passing as little as possible time in the briefing room might not allow for a proper briefing or information sharing with the crew. Pilots cannot freely leave the flight deck so the possibility of washing one’s hands as deemed appropriate by the World Health Organisation is also limited.
  2. The second stressor is the chance that a fellow crew member or passenger might already have the coronavirus.  Doctors have now established that the majority of the population could be potentially “healthy” carriers of the virus. Adding to this, there is a chance that a passenger on board might show symptoms of the Covid-19, in response to which the crew has to apply appropriate contingency procedures. A new unknown threat is therefore posed to the crew and appropriate countermeasures have to be taken. 
  3. There is also the additional stressor represented by the possibility of bringing back the virus unwillinglyto loved ones at home. Though pilots should not come into close contact with anyone showing any signs of illness, this underlying threat exists and canplay on the pilot’s mind.
  4. The fourth factor that can induce additional stress is due to the fact that some colleagues have indeed tested positive  for the virus and have been hospitalised, thus increasing the possibility that one could be infected through working conditions.
  5. The fifth stressor is being grounded for an unspecified period of time. The trauma of losing one’s job is well known, but in this case this loss is amplified by the fact that all crew are exposed to the same kind of stress. The commonality of this experience while resulting cathartic for some, could possibly increase anguish, particularly if fake rumors are introduced. Pilots bereft of their wings could find themselves worrying endlessly and speculating for hours. This could also isolate them from their usual support system of family and friends that might not fully comprehend the kind of stress that they are currently subjected to. 

As sad as it may seem, nobody really knows how long this pandemic outbreak will last and therefore for how long this economic crisis will last. Having spread throughout the world the virus has limited the potential for pilots thinking of a possible relocation elsewhere if they lose their jobs.  Aircraft have been grounded worldwide and nations, which up to a few months ago were declaring major pilot shortages, are now suffering. This severely impacts the mindset of a pilot who is used to having a backup plan in mind for an eventual difficulty. Unfortunately at this time no readily available back up plans seem to be forthcoming.

The last but possibly most impacting factor is the economic loss associated with losing one’s job. The crisis has hit all sectors of the economy and Government funding at this time is limited in many countries, increasing the possibility of finding oneself with no income and no chance of finding an alternative.

How can we possibly overcome this period? Most of the guidelines established by National Psychological Associations for the general population are also valid for pilots.Pilots can also talk to a properly trained colleague, a “peer” that can help her/him in coping in these difficult times. The added value that a peer has compared to a mental health professional is that nobody can understand a pilot better than another pilot. The pilot's life is made up of acronyms, shift work, loneliness, camaraderie is only fully understood by someone who has lived the same experience. A peer has the advantage of being able to assist a pilot by honing in on his resilient traits and giving emphatic support. Peers have to find proactive ways in this period of “lockdown” to assist their colleagues through alternative use of technology and group chats.

Another lesson learned in my perspective is that you cannot completely avoid any risk. However, if you have the correct instruments to face it, you will be able to manage it.    

In conclusion, airline companies need to implement several measures on psychological matters including a human factor evaluation and approach for the crew,  in addition to the current guidance on the recognition of signs and symptoms of COVID-19, or the management of suspected cases. 

*(the UN specialized agency established by States in 1944 to manage the administration and governance of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, that currently works with the Convention’s 193 Member States and industry groups to reach consensus on international civil aviation Standards and Recommended Practices and policies in support of a safe, efficient, secure, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible civil aviation sector) 

(For all the technical aspects thanks to Ms. C. Costantini, Airline Pilot, Human Factor expert. Psychological Counsellor specialised in critical Incident and trauma recovery)  

Further Reading