Rebuilding, Reskilling, and Reenergizing the Commercial Airline Workforce

Nearly every industry in America was impacted by the unexpected events of 2020, but with the majority of Americans on “lockdown” in their homes, the commercial airline industry—and with it, its workforce—was significantly impacted.

Even with federal relief funds that were contingent on limiting layoffs through September 2020, airlines in the United States had approximately 60,000 fewer employees at the end of the year compared with the beginning of the year (US Bureau of Transportation statistics). On July 14, 2020, Delta announced that it was shaving its workforce by 20 percent through buyouts and early retirements. At the time of the announcement, CEO Ed Bastian commented that he believed it would be more than two years before the industry would recover. In October, United Airlines and American Airlines each furloughed more than 32,000 employees.

As the country continues to increase vaccinations across the population, the commercial air travel industry is seeing a rapid rise in travel. Is the industry ready to handle this surge considering the diminished staffing levels? According to Airlines for America, passenger volume on US carriers was down 53 percent in mid-March compared to pre-COVID-19 levels, but up from the lowest points of 2020.

More travel means that airlines need to begin staffing up once again, but how do airlines replace the knowledge and skills that exited the industry in 2020? Further, how do they enable their workforce to be efficient, effective, and deliver great customer service, while balancing additional safety guidelines, more contactless technology, and so forth?

Step 1: Develop a Workforce Recovery Plan
As airlines begin to adjust their business plans, the workforce must be reskilled and reshaped to meet the needs of a world and industry that have changed drastically. It’s important for airlines to understand how their workforce currently operates versus how their recovery business plan needs them to function. It will be imperative to identify the gaps that exist and the skills needed to fill those holes.

With additional OSHA regulations tied to the ongoing health crisis, a proper road map must include many critical factors; how will airlines balance the need to ramp up their talent quickly to meet rising demand, while also ensuring safe operation of the aircraft and passenger safety?

Step 2: Identify and Develop the Most Critical Skills Needed
Airlines should assess the talent that currently exists within their organization, determine where gaps exist, and develop a plan to fill those gaps. From a cost and time-saving standpoint, it is important to determine how existing skills and capabilities among current staff can be deployed to help achieve desired business outcomes, and which skills need to be hired, trained, or developed. Partnering with a workforce transformation expert can expedite this process.

Step 3: Create a Continuous Workforce Transformation Road Map
Even with high-quality initial training, workers need continuous support if they’re to be successful. Developing a road map that involves frequent check-ins with practical feedback about what’s working and what needs improvement will ensure future success. Sticking to a deliberate and measured approach to building a workforce of the future will provide the right skills to the right people at the right time.

GP Strategies can help you rebuild, reskill, and reenergize your workforce. Contact us to get started on the road to sustainable, forward-thinking change.

About the Authors

Chad Vyhlidal

Chad is VP, Aerospace, Defense & Government Industry Leader at GP Strategies. Prior to GP Strategies, Chad led global teams to consult with and sell to Chief Human Resource Officers and members of the CXO. Chad has 25 years’ experience in the defense, healthcare, information technology, pharmaceutical and professional services industries, working for and with multi-national organizations.