For almost three decades, Mauricio Gavala’s normalcy has meant spending much of the week at more than 10,000 meters. He is one of the cabin crew (also called TCP) who, with the total shutdown of the airline sector, has not taken off for more than two months. He is 47 years old and started flying with Spanair, but since 2013 he has been doing so for Iberia. Now, with the covid-19 crisis, the figure of 13,900 workers included in the Spanish airline’s temporary employment regulation (ERTO) file has risen. Faced with a sector that may take two to three years to return to normal activity and threatens to add to a wave of layoffs, crews and pilots are beginning to think of alternatives. “All our training is very specific to this job,” explains Gavala.
Every ten or twelve months he was accustomed to taking practical courses to learn first aid, update himself with new regulations, or intervene in firefighting simulations. “Getting out of work is complicated because there are a lot of people over the age of 35 who have dedicated all our efforts to this,” laments Gavala. The working lives of the crew, he adds, do not extend beyond the age of 60, and he says most airlines prefer younger staff. “They don’t want us old and decrepit people,” he laughs.
Although unions have not yet seen an immediate reconversion to other sectors, changes in aviation foresee an uncertain future. Where can they find work if the airlines go bankrupt? “Usually they have taken advantage of the languages and have turned to tourism, hotels, guides …”, says Antonio Escobar, president for 12 years of the Sitcpla union. Until the pandemic, he points out, the profession was in high demand and there was no structural unemployment. “Almost all airlines were creating jobs,” he added. During the previous crisis of 2008, in which some companies fell, he says that a recurring issue for many young people was the Gulf airlines.
Amid job uncertainty over covid-19, Gavala believes that the cabin crew’s ability to solve problems and become accustomed to stressful situations can save them from unemployment. “I remember that on a flight a passenger had to go to a very important job interview, he was nervous and his shoe fell on the toilet. A colleague bandaged his foot as if it had been torn and all resolved, “he said. Beyond the anecdote, it is common in the industry for workers to have “past lives” to which they could return. “Some are translators, lawyers … There is everything,” says Escobar.
Àngels Martí is TCP at the Ryanair base in Girona and has been flying for 17 years. Before she started flying, however, she studied psychology and a few years ago she was pursuing a master’s degree to become a high school teacher. Earlier this month, the National High Court forced the Irish airline to readmit workers from Vilobí d’Onyar and Girona bases after declaring their dismissals null and void. So, he has gone from an ERO to an ERTO, but it is unclear when he will board a plane again. “I’m training to have another future,” says Martí.
The pilots are in a similar situation. “It’s a bit difficult to think about reconversion right now,” says Pierre Dornes, until recently at the controls of Norwegian aircraft and now also in an ERTO. To obtain a flight license they must first go through expensive training, which in some cases even forces them to go into debt. “At least it can be applied in other areas and we already have the habit of working under a lot of stress,” insists Dornes.
Joining the fight against coronavirus is an option that so far only a few countries have explored. Because of their training, cabin crew often have first aid courses and in Sweden the government has decided to train them to work in hospitals and nursing homes. In the United Kingdom, the Department of Health has also asked the group to join the emergency trenches.
Specifically, it has asked airlines such as EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic to lay off their staff to attend field hospitals spread across the country while companies keep them in ERTOs. Thus, more than 4,000 flight attendants with first aid training have gone from managing passengers to caring for British patients. At present, Spain does not envisage any retraining plan for these professionals, beyond the courses offered by employment services. The collective does not expect it either. “I am afraid there will be no training. I would like to be seen as an important part of society, but we are considered lucky “, concludes Gavala.