Is remote work viable in the aviation sector?

In a McKinsey report ranking 800 jobs with remote work potential, the aviation (transportation) sector is among the bottom five industries

(Source: Aerviva)

From pilots to cabin crew, technicians to airport staff, most roles require people to be on site. Does that mean working from home has limited potential in aviation? Jainita Hogervorst is a director at Aerviva Aviation Consultancy, a Dubai-based company specializing in aviation recruitment and document management, taking stock of the state of remote and hybrid working in the sector and reflecting on what the future holds.

Why remote work matters
In KPMG's 2024 Aviation Leaders Report, labor shortages are identified as one of the key challenges facing the industry. “There are multiple reasons for this shortage, such as the delay in connecting new pilots due to pauses in training programs during the COVID pandemic,” explains Jainita.

"The context has also changed since COVID," he argues. "Hybrid or fully remote working is now a viable option in many sectors. This has put flexibility and wellbeing at the forefront of candidates' minds, and aviation is not a sector that scores particularly well in these areas ". A 2021 research by academics at Trinity College Dublin found that pilots experience high levels of work-related stress, fatigue and family tension. Researchers at the PFH Private University of Applied Sciences in Göttingen found that cabin crew experience similar challenges.

"Today, they see their friends and family in other sectors enjoying the flexibility that working from home provides, which makes recruiting and retention even more difficult." But, as a sector that depends on in-person work, is working from home possible?

Efforts so far to make remote work possible in aviation
Even before the COVID lockdowns, aviation companies were actively exploring the potential of remote work. “There were specific efforts in air traffic control and MRO to leverage technologies that could enable more remote activities,” explains Jainita.

“Then during COVID, those who could shift to working from home in our industry did so.”

Some airlines were reluctant to make this change, and American Airlines headquarters staff asked the company to be allowed to work remotely. On the other hand, many adopted work from home for their office staff. British Airways explored options to sell its 114,000 m2 Heathrow headquarters building due to the success of remote working (it abandoned these plans in 2023 as people returned to the office).

“While digitalization continues to be intensively explored, COVID did not cause a fundamental change,” argues Jainita. "We are still a long way from remote or hybrid work being available for the majority of specialists in our sector."

Limited remote work options in aviation

“A quick search on career sites will reveal options for remote work within our sector,” says Jainita. "They are typically found in areas such as business development and sales, marketing, data analytics, IT and R&D. However, it is clear that almost all operational tasks in the aviation sector cannot be carried out seamlessly. remote," says Jainita.

Pilots and co-pilots

Given the shortage, remote piloting or co-piloting would certainly bring advantages if it could be made to work. However, there are significant, perhaps insurmountable, challenges. "The debate over remote piloting and co-piloting began at least a decade ago, when the industry began to respond to the potential of remotely piloted aircraft in commercial aviation," explains Jainita. "However, pilot associations have consistently expressed concerns about the possibility of integrating remote piloting into commercial operations."

There are concerns about extended minimum crew (eMCO) proposals that would reduce the number of pilots at the controls of a plane. ALPA's "Safety Starts with 2" campaign has been supported by other associations such as BALPA and focuses on ensuring that 2 pilots remain on board aircraft for safety reasons. "While many of these concerns focus specifically on automation rather than remote work, the concerns about security and liability remain valid."

Air traffic control and flight operations.

In the case of air traffic control, systems such as Frequentis remote digital towers were already in use in several countries before the COVID pandemic. However, bodies such as IFISA, the International Flight Information Services Association, have concluded that moving from remote digital towers to working from home is technically very challenging. "There are obvious risks related to secure Internet connections, power redundancy and telecommunications: air traffic control towers use specific, custom-made equipment," explains Jainita.

Similar concerns exist for roles such as schedulers and dispatchers (also known as flight operations officers). In 2020, the FAA allowed a small number of airlines to experiment with dispatchers working from home, rather than from secure flight operations centers. "Even this limited measure has been controversial," says Jainita. "Along with safety concerns, a key issue here is liability. If there is a technical issue and the dispatcher is working from home, who takes responsibility?"

Impacting the industry but not allowing work from home

The COVID pandemic raised a question. Can remote work become widespread in the aviation sector? Two years later, the answer seems to be: not yet, and perhaps never. "In the near future, it seems very unlikely that these technical challenges and security concerns will be overcome," says Jainita. "Technologies that enable remote activities will continue to impact the industry, especially in areas such as training. IATA and others now offer live virtual classrooms. And in MRO, there are wide-ranging applications for technologies such as smart glasses to enable maintenance support remote. "

"However, this will not translate to working from home for most aviation specialists." Viewed in context, this doesn't have to be bad news. Pew Research found that 61% of all workers in the US still work in an office or workplace. "Aviation is no exception," says Jainita. "By consistently addressing candidate well-being, we can still offer attractive career opportunities in our sector. Research shows that working in person with colleagues allows for better mentoring and more connections between colleagues. Promote these benefits and demonstrate that working in aviation can be exciting and rewarding, is what we need to focus on to address the talent shortage we currently face."

Source: Aerviva.

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