Coronavirus Survey

BACKGROUND

The coronavirus crisis affects every economic sector and aviation is not an exception. Due to the unprecedented nature of this crisis, monitoring the situation is a necessity to gather and share information that can be useful to learn how to deal with the disease and how to expect.

IFATCA conducted a survey among its members with the first replies received at the beginning of April. An updated list of questions was circulated at the beginning of May. The results presented here give an overview of the situation of May 15th from some 85 respondents.

ESSENTIAL SERVICE

Air transport is considered as an essential activity due to its importance in a world where commerce and tourism have a huge economical impact in the economy. Having the COVID crisis disrupted tourism, the question arises whether air transport is still essential and how needed ATC is as a facilitator.

To investigate this issue, one of the questions of the survey is about ATC being considered as an essential service. An 89% of the answers was positive but the question was considered a tricky one. The important question is not whether there is an explicit declaration of ATS as essential but whether facilities have been required to continue providing ATS even when almost every activity is paralyzed. This question was included in the second version of the survey. According to the answers, no country has ceased to provide ATS no matter how strictly they have been in lockdown. Only 4 countries report that some ATC facilities have been affected. Some of them had their operation time reduced or opened only on demand, admitted only cargo flights according to one answer and in one case, some small facilities were temporarily closed. But there is not a single reported case of a country ceasing to provide air traffic services.

Countries that designate ATC as an essential service

1 %
Essential service

MEASURES TAKEN

The measures taken at the facilities are included in the survey under two categories: workplace hygiene and staff personal hygiene. The most common measure to increase the workplace hygiene is the banning of visits followed by more frequent cleaning and disinfection of working material and common elements like doorknobs. Having separate ways to enter and leave the facility is the least common of the options jointly with the temperature screening of staff before entering the operations room. This is hardly a surprise: while a big control center can have many ways to enter the ops room, towers are limited by its very structure to a single point of access. Temperature screening is the least popular option probably because it is cumbersome and its efficiency is questionable considering that the COVID-19 can be transmitted by asymptomatic people before showing any increase in corporal temperature.

In the second version of the survey two new possible answers were added: panels being installed between working positions and keeping doors open to avoid touching them. They have not been included in the graphic above because comparison is not possible due to lack of new responses by some of the responders of the first version. The options were the installation of panels between working positions which seems very uncommon (only 2 positive answers) and keeping doors open which seems at least as common as the constant cleaning of elements like doorknobs and light switches.

PERSONAL MEASURES

More than 90 % of answers in this area go to three very simple but yet effective measures: availability of hand sanitizer dispensers, promotion of washing hands and staying at home in case of showing symptoms of being sick. Encouraging staff to monitor their own body temperature is the least preferred option.

A new option was also added to the second version of the survey in this area: the formation of stable teams formed with the same people to minimize interaction. It has not been included in the graphic for consistency due to the lack of information by some responders of the first version but it seems a very common option with nearly an 85% of positive answers among the new and returning respondents.

CHANGES IN WORKING CONDITIONS

Salary Cuts

ANSPs are still working but they are losing a lot of their income making the situation for staff uncertain. It is good news that most of the answers (64 out of 85) report no salary cuts but there are 12 answers that mention some kind of reduction in the controllers’ income. 9 of the answers mentioned some kind of specific situation. These answers have been included in the graphic under the title “no cut yet” because this is the most common reply among these 9 MAs. Most of them report that cuts are expected, but situation is variable: some of them mention discussions ongoing between managers and unions, some mention that salary itself remains but there is a loss of income due to overtime.

OPERATIONAL CHANGES

The working conditions have changed also in the way traffic is handled. There is a general reduction in the number of working positions (95% of answers, only 4 MAs reporting no reduction) with several clarifications reported by some MAs (reduction not being in place in all facilities for example). In such cases, it has been considered that reduction was in place, even partially and they have been include in the YES answer for analysis purposes. Reduction in manning requirement is slightly less common but still reaches an 83.5% of the answers.

This reduction has consequences in the work schedule. The most usual arrangement is a reduction in the number of working days, often combined with longer shifts that can be as long as 24 hours in a few cases. It is very common, as mentioned under the staff hygiene measures, that controllers are arranged in closed teams. This way, if a member of the working team is sick, the whole team can be quarantined and replaced by a new team of controllers kept in standby.

Reduction in Working Positions

Reduction in Manning Requirement

Validation by SMS

Under normal circumstances, such kind of new arrangements and working changes should require a validation by the SMS. This was already mentioned by one MA, when responding to the first survey, which mentioned that the implementation of new longer shifts had been approved by the local NSA. The question was only included in the second version of the survey and therefore the conclusions are not as complete. 55% of the answers are positive but there is a 35% of negative answers and even one case where it was reported that there was no SMS unit. The high number of cases with no validation can show a lack of time to perform a proper analysis but also a lack of contingency plans properly validated by the SMS.

EFFECT ON LICENSING, COMPETENCY & TRAINING

The licensing system has also been affected. In two out of three cases the system of periodical renovation has been modified to accommodate an extension that can reach up to six months being in other cases extended for four months, 3 months, 45 days, etc. The medical certificate has also been extended in many cases, but this extension is less common than the previous one (58% instead of 66%). In places where an extension has been granted, its duration is similar to the license extension. The language proficiency certificate is in comparison not commonly extended (38% of cases) but there is a catch here: countries where English is the official language and controllers have level 6 don’t need to address this issue while other countries have a common fixed date (end of June or December are two examples) and they have still time to take measures before the end of the validity period approaches.

As expected, the disruption has affected on-the-job training which is reported to have stopped completely or partially in most responses. There is a 18% of the new replies in the second version that mention that OJT is still ongoing normally which is consistent with the results of the first version. Suspension of OJT is sometimes reported to be partial depending on the stage of training or the particular unit. Some of the responses emphasize the impossibility to provide quality training with extremely low levels of traffic thus introducing a side effect of the pandemic. Plans to restart OJT after the crisis are not well defined yet: a 56% of responses state that trainees will resume instruction from where they stopped while the rest of responses has no clear plan so far and this can probably change if the situation goes on for a long time.

OJT Total or Partial Suspension

License Extension

Medical Certificate Extension

Language Proficiency Extension

Many responses mention concerns about controllers losing skills in a prolonged situation of very low traffic. One possibility would be to make use of simulators to help ATCOs to keep competence during the low traffic period. Such a situation is foreseen in a 30% of replies that would reach a 50% if we add all the responses that consider simulator as a possibility not yet decided.

Simulator to keep competence

DEALING WITH THE VIRUS: ANXIETY & STRESS - MITIGATION MEASURES

CISM Implemented

The first version of the survey showed that concerns about the increase in anxiety, fears related to the future of the profession, the air transport sector and the economy in general, as well as worries because of the health of the own respondents and their families were all very common. Pandemic is a situation unprecedented in air traffic control but a mechanism to help to cope with anxiety in a different kind of situation is well known. CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management) has been put in place in a great number of countries but it is aimed to a very different source of anxiety.

 

It is unclear how well CISM can be adapted to other situations. CISM was therefore included in the second version of the survey. The first question was aimed to learn how spread CISM.

 

Half of the answers state that CISM is used in their countries but 2 respondents were not sure about CISM being implemented or not and 2 more hadn’t heard about CISM at all. The possibility to adapt CISM to cope with anxiety and stress due to the COVID-19 crisis is mentioned by one third of the MAs reporting to have CISM while some other MAs don’t need to adapt it because they have the possibility to contact a psychologist or a counselor in mental health in case they need it.

GENERAL REMARKS & CONCLUSIONS

The last questions of the survey are about general concerns and challenges with no preselected options to choose. In general, this section shows that there are four areas of concern. In no particular order they are labour conditions, professional situation, society evolution and health concerns.

Labour conditions: Even if most of the respondents have not experienced changes in their labour conditions, many express fears about the probable evolution. Some make a reasoning about how air transport is frozen leading to airlines being in the edge of bankruptcy, leading to ANSPs having lose their source of income reaching the difficulties to maintain salaries. The possibility to lose income or even to reduce staff, especially if small facilities become non-sustainable, is a source of worries and some respondents fear that such deterioration can become permanent. In one case, it was reported that an aggressive response was received when concerns were raised to management.

Professional situation: Improvements that took many years to build and have contributed to increase the level of safety are at risk, according some of the responses. Licenses have to be renovated periodically to ensure that conditions to grant them are still met but now we see extensions; traffic levels are at a minimum low and fears of losing skills arise; training has become difficult and even impossible in cases were training is provided in a different country and there is a travel ban. Fears of not being prepared for a sudden increment in traffic after a long period of empty skies are rather common.

Society evolution: The social and economic impact of the coronavirus crisis is also a source of concern. Even in cases were the respondent has no fears about the controller profession, there are worries about the evolution of society in general. Respondents are worried about the deterioration of economy and hence social situation in their countries in general and the civil aviation in particular.

Health concerns: It must not be forgotten that the origin of all those worries is a contagious disease. Many controllers express their fears because of having to be present in an operations room that can become an inevitable place of contagion. Fears are not only for their own health but also because the controllers can become, a vector to contaminate their own families. This possibility and all of the above take a toll on mental health too and some respondents acknowledge the existence of higher levels of stress and anxiety affecting themselves or their entourage.

Conclusions

  • Measures to curtail the spread of disease have become general in ATC facilities. Most common ones being an increase in cleaning, sanitizing, and implementation of social distancing.
  • Even when traffic levels are at a historical minimum, ATS is still being provided thus making it one of the few activities not being interrupted even in cases of severe lockdowns.
  • Reduction in air traffic has led in general to a parallel reduction in working positions, manning positions and changes in the working scheme. In general, shifts are longer and the number of working days has decreased.
  • Many of such changes (at least a 35% of cases) have not been validated by a Safety Management System
  • Licenses and certificates have been generally extended up to 6 months.
  • Training has been greatly disrupted. In many cases, On the Job Training has been completely stopped and is expected to be resumed after the crisis.
  • Fears due to possible changes in labour conditions, professional situation, evolution of society and health concerns are common.
  • A 15% of the respondents report their salary being cut. Percentage reaches the 25% of respondents if the ones expressing certitude of imminent cuts are added.
  • One third of the MAs having CISM in place contemplate to adapt it to treat stress and anxiety due to COVID.
  • At least half of the MAs report that CISM is not implemented in their countries. In some cases the very concept is unknown.

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