Grounded SA airline pilots: is it time to take off in another direction?

It’s no secret that the global aviation industry has been all but obliterated by the Covid-19 pandemic. With travel – both local and international – having been brought to a standstill for most of this year, airlines have been grounded and are just limping along.

Both in severe financial demise, neither South African Airways (SAA) nor South African Express has been operating, and as a result, some 800 airline pilots are unemployed and haven’t been paid for several months. Comair, which owns Kulula and manages British Airways in South Africa, was forced into a form of bankruptcy protection in May but it expects to resume flights by the end of the year. While Mango is flying again, it’s entirely possible that they may suffer the same fate as the other state -owned airlines.

The problem is that highly-skilled and highly-qualified airline pilots are losing their aviation jobs at a rate of knots and South African pilots are arguably amongst the worst affected in the world. The pilots that are already without work, thanks to the devastating impact of Covid on aviation in South Africa, have little prospect of returning in the short, medium, or even long term.

“Airline pilots are in dire straits,” says Brian Wasmuth, managing partner of The Human Capital Group. “None of them have received any separation packages from SAA or SAX; it’s as if they’ve just been abandoned and frankly, it seems as if there may be some malice toward them.”

The Human Capital Group is currently working with a number of professional airline pilots to help them transition their careers to non-aviation sectors of commerce and industry.

“We don’t appreciate the responsibilities of professional airline pilots and the exceptional skills and competencies that they need to do their jobs,” says Wasmuth. “They are highly-qualified individuals with professional academic qualifications. These diverse skills are not only applicable in the global aviation industry but are actually transferable to non-aviation sectors of commerce and industry in any global economy.”


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Professional competencies of airline pilots include: 

  • A professional, globally-recognised Airline Transport Pilot qualification, i.e. an ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot
    Licence)
  • To obtain an ATPL and maintain it, airline pilots have to complete a globally-benchmarked academic program
  • Undergoing rigorous practical training to meet stringent international standards
  • Completing a minimum of 1500 flying hours prior to qualification
  • Undergoing strict theoretical and practical re-examination biannually

An ATPL is also considered to be the same level as a Bachelor of Science degree in aviation or a similar four-year degree, says Wasmuth. All qualifications and standards are regulated by international aviation bodies, including the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in the US and the Joint Aviation Authority (JAA) in Europe.

So can pilots take on other roles? 

As a career and transition coach, Wasmuth believes that pilots have skills that will allow them to fulfill other vocations easily.

“I have done a significant amount of work with airline pilots of late and I can vouch for the fact that these are highly-professional and highly-skilled individuals with competencies transferable and applicable in non-aviation sectors of commerce and industry – in fact it’s been somewhat of an epiphany for me,” he says. “There may be a perception that the skills of airline pilots are confined to the aviation industry only – with respect, this perception is an uninformed one.”

In fact, Wasmuth says that pilots are well-equipped to enter retail, FMCG, engineering, manufacturing, agriculture, risk management, supply chain and procurement, logistics, transport, maintenance, project management, hospitality, tourism, health and safety, financial services, IT, administration, and facilities management, among other trades.

“Pilots have excellent leadership skills, management skills, and risk management skills. They need to have well-developed analytical skills, including problem analysis and problem solving.”

Besides these traits, successful airline pilots also have to display high levels of cognitive functioning, emotional maturity, personal and interpersonal effectiveness, resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity, and personal gravitas.

“They also display unmatched discipline in the execution of their duties, making them excellent prospective employees of any organisation,” he concluded.

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