AINsight: The Shot Felt Round the World

 - November 19, 2021, 8:33 AM

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been meeting in person with flight department leaders, in part to gauge their current operational climate. And it didn’t take me long to see that the massive demand for business aviation has returned.

It’s true that flight departments have never been busier. But that tremendous surge in demand isn’t occurring without its share of challenges.

For one, I’ve also had a few meetings and telephone calls with aviation directors who’ve lost staff due to their company’s Covid-19 vaccine mandates. Or they tell me that they anticipate a need to replace employees who inevitably don’t plan to comply with these mandates.

I’m afraid that this is yet another perfect storm in the making.

On the one hand, we have 18-plus months of pent-up demand for private air travel looming. And on the other, we’re facing a potential talent and supply chain shortage. That means we’ll struggle to answer the demand if we don’t have the resources to maintain, schedule, and fly the aircraft.

Survey Says…

To better understand—and confirm—if there indeed are widespread, aviation-related issues regarding the vaccine mandates, I sent out a short survey across a wide spectrum of flight departments. I was gratified to find that 24 directors responded to the survey confidentially. And a handful agreed to talk with me one-on-one about their unique challenges.

Following are some survey results I’ve tabulated to give us a sense of what’s going on:

  • Nearly 55 percent of directors surveyed said their departments must comply with a company mandate.
  • A quarter of the directors said their departments don’t have a mandate, but that one may soon be coming.
  • Fifteen percent of respondents reported that some of their aviation staff have already left due to the vaccine (10 percent of those who left were pilots).
  • Respondents said they may lose up to 33 percent of their pilots because of government- and/or company-mandated vaccine mandates. Thus, pilots are indicating a willingness to walk away from their current job if they're required to get a vaccine by the deadline of Jan. 4, 2022.

No One-size-fits-all Solution

As most of us are aware, every flight department is unique. No single department can serve as a model or standard for what’s going on across the board. So, to an extent, my conversations with the flight leaders I spoke with are anecdotal. Still, they serve as indicators of what business aviation leaders are grappling with in their own way.

To wit: there’s one department leader I spoke with who has a team of pilots who are all unvaccinated. He told me: “My boss, who’s the head of HR, set a mandate that anybody on the airplane had to have gotten the shot. So I said, ‘Well, that's good to know, but who’s going to fly the airplane?’ He replied, ‘Well, you've gotten the shot.’ And I told him I hadn’t. ‘Well, you're planning on getting the shot, aren’t you?’ he asked. Again, I said no. And he said, ‘Well, how about the other pilots?’ I said no. He told me, ‘Let me get back to you.’ Then when my boss called back, he told me, ‘Okay, you guys are exempt.’”

That said, this particular director and his flight crew do wear masks when they're loading the passengers and shutting the door. But once they get in the cockpit, they remove their masks in case of an emergency.

The director offered his CEO an alternative: “I said, right now the mandate is for companies of more than 100 people. I asked him, would you entertain me starting a management company and managing your airplanes? And, in that situation, I would employ all the mechanics, schedulers, and pilots. Your operation would be at the same cost, but it would enable us to get away from those regulations. So he's entertaining that idea.”

My other conversations include these key takeaways:

  • Executives and VIP travelers refuse to fly with unvaccinated crew. One company executive we heard about refuses to fly with his department’s unvaccinated flight technician. Similarly, another leader told me, “Our clients are driving the vaccinations because they refuse to fly with an unvaccinated flight crew.”
  • Covid is dividing teams. More than one department leader shared that their unvaccinated employees are not allowed in the hangar or have to quarantine at home after flights. This adds even more work for those who are vaccinated, causing significant resentment.
  • Covid mandates are causing service issues. One charter customer, who was flying internationally with an infant, requested that the flight crew be changed out to accommodate the customer’s wish of flying with a vaccinated staff.

Lastly, something of importance that’s come up in hiring is that flight departments are looking beyond hiring vaccinated employees. At the end of the day, hiring managers want to recruit those who are committed to remaining fully vaccinated. This is opposed to those who comply with the initial vaccine and potentially contest the boosters and maintenance in the future.

Unfortunately, Covid has created a complex issue, layered upon an already constrained workforce. There’s no easy answer to these deeply personal, values-based issues.

But in times of conflict, it’s even more important for leaders to stay close to their teams and simultaneously maintain the directive in a way that separates it from people.

As leaders, it’s difficult to manage people through directives that leave little to no option for choice or input; when you add the political climate of our country and the increasing difficulty to separate it from the workplace, it can feel impossible to maintain a team’s cohesion.

Adding the complexity of one team member’s decision impacting the workload of another, the situation is rife with opportunities for division and negative cultural impact.

My suggestion is to stay closer to your people than ever—lean into the difficult conversations and empathize with both parties while continuing to maintain the how and the why of the directive. It’s important to separate the self from the directive, and the team from aligning one person as the root of the fragmentation.

After all, it’s the company’s mandate and is often based on regulations. Thus, employees must make a choice based on that mandate and we must function operationally within those outcomes.

Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of NBAA’s board of directors and currently serves on the NBAA advisory council.