People Matter – Attracting, Retaining, and Developing Industry Professionals Must Be a Priority

Guest Author by Guest Author | Sep 15, 2022
By Philip Kwok, Economic Research Analyst, ACI Asia-Pacific

The aviation industry’s workforce will be one of the hot topics of discussion at the new event, Airports Innovate, taking place in Muscat, Oman from 7–8 December.

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A difficult summer travel experience

As COVID-19 related travel restrictions are fully and partially eased in many parts of the world, some of us get to enjoy the privilege of travelling across borders.  

The current traffic trend indicates a strong pent-up demand for air travel. Particularly, leisure travel such as visiting friends and relatives and postponed holidays will continue to buoy the industry’s recovery.

Nonetheless, the pent-up demand for air travel seems to pose significant challenges to airport operations. Long waits for check-in and baggage reclaim, lost luggage and extended layovers are common sights. Flight display screens decorated with cancellations and delays have only worsened the airport experience.

One cannot help but notice that some airports are experiencing manpower shortages, unable to handle the surge in passenger traffic and as a result causing disruptions in the network.

The labor crisis is not just limited to airports but to the entire aviation ecosystem that includes airlines, government agencies, ground handlers, security service providers etc., not to mention many other service industries, and peaked at a time when demand for travel returned faster than expected.

How it used to be before COVID-19

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, airports were known as stable and predictable entities in the aviation ecosystem, being able to efficiently manage their resources against given traffic volumes. On a global scale, 87.7 million jobs were supported by air transport, but about 60% of these jobs were concentrated on airport sites. The airport sector was an indispensable node of aviation employment. In fact, a typical airport hub would have around 40,000 employees working on site.

The economic contributions of the aviation industry were estimated to be 4.1% of the global GDP under “normal” circumstances, and air transport related jobs, on average, were 4.3 times more productive compared with other sectors.

Then the pandemic hit  

The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated decline in traffic have led to severe financial challenges for airport operators and many other stakeholders in the aviation ecosystem, including security, baggage handling, passenger processing etc.

The deterioration of the financial health of the industry led industry stakeholders to resort to painful personnel reductions and payroll cuts just to stay financially afloat.

Airports had to leave behind thousands of aviation professionals as the immediate financial considerations overshadowed the longer-term human capital related requirements to sustain airport operations.

The impacts from the pandemic reshaped the global economy, resulting in the relocation of workforce and human resources. Aviation jobs often require physical presence, long commutes and unsocial working patterns. Given aviation’s uncertain outlook brought by the ongoing pandemic, perhaps it was not a surprise that professionals with transferable skills were the first to leave the industry to pursue career opportunities elsewhere.

As the world begins to turns its page to the post COVID-era, ground handlers, security service providers and concessionaires that shed thousands of staff are now coming out of the pandemic with depleted human resources. It is observed that some sectors in the industry are struggling to accommodate the increase in demand for air travel.

Our advocacy to address the problem

In order to attract and retain human capital to the industry, it is important to ensure the workplace, development opportunities, and longer-term career prospects are attractive enough to the workforce. Nonetheless, safeguarding sufficient levels of recruitment and retention of staff within the aviation industry will require significant efforts by all stakeholders and governments in particular given the challenging conditions the industry is still facing. Hence, it is crucial to leverage collaborative decision-making principles to ensure the efficient utilization of existing human and physical capital.

Although the manpower shortage phenomenon has not led to significant safety or security concerns, it is recommended to conduct risk and vulnerability assessments and identify appropriate mitigation measures. Ensuring operation supervision of daily activities can support the implementation of standards and respond to potentially challenging situations.

Additionally, in order for our professionals to perform at an optimal level, we must not overlook their wellbeing, which includes mental health, morale, esteem, and confidence. It is important to monitor staff’s health and conditions, and take actions to alleviate impacts arising from manpower shortages. Measures to improve the staff’s wellbeing, motivation, and engagement should be high on aviation stakeholders’ agenda.

Looking beyond recovery

ACI forecasts that passenger traffic will recover by 2025 at the latest. Beyond recovery, it is estimated that passenger traffic will grow at a pace of +8.7% per year for the next two decades. The cliché of “knowledge is power” highlights the importance of human capital. The industry must collectively work to support professional development, technical onboarding, and communication programs for generations to come. Collaboration between industry stakeholders and education institutes in developing training and accreditation programs would facilitate the future recruitment of adequate aviation professionals and narrow potential future skill gaps.

The evolution of technology and the implementation of automation equipment have brought about benefits in terms of cost savings, efficiency enhancements, and productivity improvements. Most airports began transforming their operations by utilizing advanced technological solutions before the pandemic hit. This trend means that the reskilling and upskilling must be a top priority among airport operators and aviation stakeholders to enable adaptation to the process of digitalization and technological advancement.

Let’s discuss face-to-face

Discussions on workforce can go on and on, and we would love to hear from you. ACI Asia-Pacific, ACI EUROPE and ACI World warmly invite you to join us at the inaugural Airports Innovate conference in Muscat, Oman from 7–8 December and to share your thoughts with us.

Philip Kwok, Economic Research Analyst, ACI Asia-Pacific

Philip joined ACI Asia-Pacific in 2018 as Economic Research Analyst. Philip’s responsibilities include analyzing passenger traffic trends, airport financial performance, privatization processes and capital expenditures among airport operators in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. Philip also assists in leading the Regional Economics Committee and provides regional specific insights to complement ACI World’s advocacy strategies and policy positions.

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