Arpad Szakal, a former aviation lawyer and now an executive search and leadership assessment professional offers his advice and guidance to aviation professionals battling to cope with having lost their jobs. He spoke to World Airnews editor Heidi Gibson
WAN : The Covid-19 crisis has caused pandemonium throughout the aviator sector. As fleets are grounded – airlines across the world – have had to lay off pilots, technicians and others. Briefly describe the psychological process that a pilot would go through having been told that they can’t fly and are now forced to take voluntary retirement or have been retrenched.
AS: Pilots are arguably more affected than most as the impact on the air travel industry generally, and on job security specifically, has been profound and is likely to remain so for some time to come.
It is particularly difficult for pilots because they very often don’t just lose their jobs/uniform but their whole identity. It is much more than a job for them. It is a passion and something that is very close to their heart.
From my experience, working with flight crews around the world is that they all go through the five stages of grief. These are:
This is a basic survival instinct that surfaces when we face an unpleasant or trying situation. Pilots don’t always give themselves enough time to properly process the news and grasp their new reality.
Anger and Disbelief
These emotions are typically the next feelings pilots move through. They very often ask themselves, “How could they do this to me?” They very often ruminate over all the great things they did for the airline, how they worked harder than the guy sitting next to them and what a terrible mistake the company made in letting them go.
This is a reaction some pilots have when a situation feels hopeless. And the loss of a job can feel like a desperate time. Some pilots try to bargain their way out of a bad situation.
Depression is the next stage of the process and can really hit people hard. You may not get offered the first, third or even the tenth job you apply for. “I am never going to find a job!” is what a lot of pilots keep telling themselves.
Finally, pilots come to the acceptance stage of the grieving process. They come to accept the current situation and can finally let the past go.
It is really important to spend enough time in each of these stages as all of them are important to help with the healing process after a job loss.
WAN: What should they do? What should they not do? In a practical way can you please describe a person’s best course of action?
AS: The best practical survival strategies are:
- Don’t go it alone – Seek support
Get help navigating the grief-like feelings and help to create a plan to move forward. Don’t engage in self-defeat and avoid behaviours that will keep you in a cycle of negativity.
- Keep a routine
Get outside, seek out adventure and fresh air. Make a conscious effort to surround yourself with people who support and inspire you – avoid those who are angry.
- Structure your day
Reconnect with things you haven’t done for a while – hobbies you let slip, volunteering, friends, or family will reinforce the fact that your identity is more than a job.
- Make a realistic assessment of your financial situation
If you think that you may be out of work set out all your necessary expenses and exactly what you need to survive. Talk to lenders and mortgage companies to re-negotiate deals and be brutal about cutting out ‘discretionary spending’. Involve your family in this process and brainstorm ideas.
- Create new CVs and covering letters
One for pursuing any flying opportunities that may occur and another for any non-flying jobs that you may wish to apply for. In the latter case whilst the technical aspects of flying may be irrelevant, the ‘competencies’ will be and many of your managerial skills can be referenced.
- Sign up to recruitment sites & get good at networking
There will, of course, be fierce competition for jobs that become available. Market yourself and seek career guidance if needed.
- Use your time wisely – upskill & reskill
Develop new skills, and pick up skills that will help you succeed in a non- flying role. Make use of the very many free resources available.
WAN: What has been your experience? Have you seen a rise in the number of cases you are dealing with?
AS: There has been a sharp increase in the number of cases I handle on the career support side. Pilots, however, typically use a career transition coach as an emergency room, after all else has failed and they have been rejected many times. They have the “I can do it” on my own attitude which is of course not helpful in a situation when you could really do with some professional help.
WAN: How damaging would this be to a person’s psyche – especially some of the more experienced older 50 years and above pilots – and once the crisis is over how would they be able to regain the confidence to be able to be in charge of an airplane again?
AS: The negative impact of a job loss is very damaging at any stage of a career. It is particularly true when it comes to the 50+ generation. They normally take longer to recover from the shock. Many senior pilots just can’t imagine life outside of the cockpit. This is particularly true for those who have not really done anything else outside of flying. They need a lot of help and coaching to make them realise that their skill set is highly transferable and valuable in many other sectors. At the end of the they these people have been highly trained, vetted and have been through rigorous assessments (most people would not be able to pass).
Some senior captains find it very difficult to get their confidence back after a job loss and it takes them a very long time to gain it back. A lot of them decide to take early retirement because they just can’t face yet another downturn in the industry. Many senior pilots decide to leave the industry and embark on a completely new career. Some others see it as an opportunity to continue working in the aviation sector but in a very different capacity.
WAN: I also understand that the rate of suicide among ex-pilots is climbing. Are you aware of this? What has been your experience or knowledge of this?
AS: Sadly, some pilots do get to the stage when they are so depressed that they are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Thankfully, I’ve not encountered such client during the course of my practice so far but I’m aware that this is a widespread issue currently in the industry.
WAN: Is there a facility or resource where pilots can go to seek help? Where should they go to receive help or support?
Some of the best resources available to pilots who need help are:
Centre for Aviation Psychology:
Resilient Pilot or resilientpilot.com – a free peer support network offering resources and mentors to help aspiring and experienced pilots remain connected with the airline industry.
Cockpit Coaches or Cockpitcoaches.com – helps support pilots navigate through turbulent times in the aviation industry and helps them create new and powerful opportunities.
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WHO IS ARPAD SZAKAL?
Arpad Szakal has specialised expertise in the engineering, infrastructure and manufacturing sectors, as well as aerospace and defence. He has worked at the aviation departments of two leading international law firms in London where he handled EU regulatory cases including passenger rights. He helps aviation professionals to relaunch their careers in other sectors. Do you need specific help? Centre For Aviation Psychology email: firstname.lastname@example.org