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Working conditions of airline workers and the impact of Covid-19

Working conditions of airline workers and the impact of Covid-19
Author: Sara Mouats
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Key words: working conditions, airline, aviation, Covid-19, wellbeing, mental health, job loss

Abstract: this discussion paper will provide an informative look into working conditions within the airline industry, how Covid-19 has impacted workers, a brief case study on a low-cost carrier and how workers in the industry may be impacted moving forward.

The reality of the airline industry today is that it is one of the hardest hit industries by Covid-19, which has led to many issues not only for the passengers and airlines, but more specifically, for the workers. In times of uncertainty, low-cost airlines employment are often the less impacted in the industry (Sobieralski, 2020). Working conditions within the industry have always been questionable in regards to hours and pay, gender gaps (pay gap, attitudes towards women pilots, segregation), health and safety and the wellbeing of workers. Annual average wages vary depending on job role, but pilots are often seen as one of the more superior jobs. In regards to health and safety within the airline working environment, there are many risks due to heavy labour procedures often carried out by most workers such as baggage handling. Flight attendants are seen to face the biggest issues regarding working hours as they may be required to stay away from home or abroad depending when and where they are scheduled to fly. This leads to issues such as these workers not always getting paid for all hours they work such as waiting around before flights or before flight responsibilities. This is a huge issue within cabin crew employment leading to issues regarding wellbeing.

An issue of Covid-19 for airline workers is job loss due to less travel demand and airline financial losses. Workers hit the most are within passenger handling/flight operations as opposed to management and also workers who are less skilled will face more threat of job loss (Sobieralski, 2020). This is likely due to these workers being less valuable and easily replaceable. Workers who have not worked since April 2020 have showed higher depression and stress, whereas those still flying had more symptoms of anxiety (Gorlich and Stadelmann, 2020). Prospect of losing a job can also impact wellbeing. This anxiety can be health-related anxiety due to being in closed environments or from close proximity to customers and depression may stem from not having a steady income/unemployment. Workers have also had to adapt to new health and safety regulations and work in a new environment based on government guidelines such as masks and extra cleaning. Airports have been less crowded meaning that staff can deal with less customers and safety rules better which will reduce stress. More rigorous cleaning has led to more pressure on cleaning staff meaning they could be working longer hours.

During times like these, an option for dealing with salary costs for pilots specifically is to come to an agreement with the pilots to reduce working hours or salary (Horinka and Kontrikova, 2020). Ryanair has been seen to adopt this approach. Originally, Ryanair (low-cost carrier) planned to cut 3000 jobs but were able to cut significantly less than this due to most workers agreeing to pay cuts. Ryanair workers have also dealt with issues such as refusing boarding to those not following Covid-19 rules and dealing with conflict. Passenger-worker conflict can lead to an unsafe working environment for staff.

It is uncertain how quickly the industry will get back to normal. In the near future there will be a surge in available jobs as airlines will have positions to be filled after job cuts. Airlines could also experience shortages of workers due to previous workers moving on to different jobs. Mental health is likely to continue to be an issue impacting workers in the long-term due to immense pressures and workers being out of work meaning they may find it hard to adapt upon return. Airlines will also continue to adapt their working environment moving forward to fit in with government regulations such as safety measures and could carry forward practices such as rigorous cleaning and mask wearing post-pandemic.

In conclusion, it can be seen that airlines faced many issues in the working environment that have only been amplified throughout the pandemic. Covid-19 has had a huge impact especially on flight attendants which could easily get worse in the future if airlines do not act fast. Recommendations for airlines moving forward may include starting slowly, employing more workers the more travel demand increases helping to ensure that workers are not being overworked which can lead to fatigue/stress. Airlines should also look to carry out mental health awareness training, counselling and wellbeing assessments to support workers who have issues with wellbeing to ensure workers remain air worthy.

Gorlich, Y. and Stadelmann, D. (2020) Mental Health of Flying Cabin Crews: Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Frontiers in Psychology, 11.

Horinka, I. and Kontrikova, I.L. (2020) Covid-19 Pandemic Impact on the Aviation Future. 2020 New Trends in Aviation Development (NTAD), Aviation Development (NTAD), 99-105.

Sobieralski, J.B. (2020) COVID-19 and airline employment: Insights from historical uncertainty shocks to the industry. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 5.