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For the aviation industry to survive and thrive, it will take many open minds

With a global pandemic, skyrocketing fuel costs, and projected shortfalls of aircrew, the aeronautics sector faces unprecedented challenges. Keeping it viable will take a concerted effort to prioritize the development of a sustainable and inclusive workforce, driving innovation.

 Before the pandemic, international aviation was on an unsustainable growth trajectory. The annual passengers carried were projected to double from 4 billion in 2019 to 8.3 billion in 2037. COVID-19 had a devastating impact, with ICAO estimating an unprecedented reduction of 60% fewer passengers in 2020 than 2019 (representing a loss of USD$ 372 billion in revenue).  Today, as society eases pandemic restrictions, travel is once again a priority for many Canadians. IATA projects air travel to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024. With increasing flights, aviation crew shortages are anticipated. 

Although COVID-19 temporarily paused the issue, the recovery will reveal the full impacts of the pandemic on the workforce. Facing long-term layoffs, many aviators chose to leave flying and pursue alternative careers. Exacerbating this challenge, pandemic-restrictions fractured the student flight-training pipeline, as schools were required to reduce capacity.

Boeing’s latest projection is that between 2021 and 2040, 612,000 new pilots, 626,000 maintenance technicians and 886,000 cabin crew are needed to fly and maintain the commercial fleet. Beyond airlines, additional crew are needed for military aviation, business aviation, eVTOLs and specialized drone operations.

The obvious yet unanswered question is how can Canada ensure workforce sustainability in aviation and aerospace?

Achieving workforce sustainability will require us to reflect on the industry’s organizational culture, with an open mind. While youth of the past may have idolized aviation, flocking to air shows and aviation museums, today many regard the industry’s traditional para-military structure as antiquated. Overcoming this will require an evolution of thinking – to challenge the status quo – and explore how to actively prioritize inclusivity.

We need a three-pronged workforce strategy that considers diversity within each stage: 1) attracting youth into aviation careers, 2) optimizing the efficiency of education programs to support learner transition from student to professional, and 3) authentically considering aspects of the industry’s culture that impact retention.

A consortium of organizations are advocating for a new, more diverse generation of aviators. Women in Aviation, Elevate Aviation, and Northern Lights Aero Foundation promote aviation to women (currently only 1 in 20 airline pilots). The Urban Pilots Network and Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals advocate for People of Colour. Canadian Aviation Pride and the National Gay Pilots Association support the attraction and retention of aviators from the LGTBQ2S+ community. Many institutions including the University of Waterloo are working to reduce the financial barriers to education for marginalized communities.

Despite good intentions, advocating change can expose operators to criticism. In the United States, United Airlines recognized that 7% of their pilots are women and 13% are People of Colour. They announced the establishment of a flight academy and committed to at least half of the students being from these underrepresented groups. The airline faced criticism for the choice’s ‘wokeness’ with a notable opinion piece titled “United Offers Passengers Exciting Opportunity to Die in Diverse and Equitable Plane Crash”, an argument completely without merit as all learners would complete the same rigorous training curriculum and assessment criteria. 

Beyond the moral arguments, a sustainable aviation future will be dependent on an efficient and competent workforce. Eliminating systemic structural barriers that prevent more than half of the population from accessing aviation careers will be a critical viability factor for the industry’s future.

Equally important, if the industry does not address factors that impact employee retention, attraction and education efforts are lost. The industry must consider both structural and cultural factors, to achieve more supportive workplaces, enabling new entrants to thrive and achieve fulfilling careers. Policy makers can support this work by prioritizing social sustainability research, to seek new understandings of how employee wellness can be enhanced.

In class, on occasion, we have heard male student pilots express frustration towards female recruitment activities. Our response is, today, two pilots are required in an airline flight deck. Supporting diversity isn’t taking your seat – it’s filling the empty seat next to you – without which you can’t take flight. 

By Suzanne Kearns & Paul Parker. Originally published in The Hill Times, April 4, 2022.

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