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The IR Guru Blog

Our series of guest blogs from key figures in Industrial and Labor Relations

Brendan Mulligan, Director Human Resources, Irish Aviation Authority and Chair of CANSO HR Workgroup

How a collaborative employee relations approach has boosted resilience of the aviation sector in the face of its biggest ever crisis

“There is no evidence to suggest that the long-term impact on employee relations will be negative as we move to a post-COVID environment.”

Aviation has been decimated – pure and simple. The COVID pandemic has delivered the biggest crisis ever to hit the aviation industry. Even the cursory glance upwards rarely delivers the expected contrails from aircraft transiting our skies.

In 2020, International Air Transport Association reported that airlines, airports and Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs – air traffic control providers) suffered net losses of €56.2 billion with 1.7 billion fewer passengers flying compared to 2019.

The pandemic has resulted in a catastrophic fall in revenue for companies operating in the aviation industry.  Many companies have had to close and may never operate again. Some companies will emerge from the pandemic but in a smaller scale of operation. The pandemic has also brought a greater focus on the way work is organized and delivered.  

The pandemic has presented our industry with three distinct phases: survival, recovery and growth. 

My company, the Irish Aviation Authority, as a provider of air traffic control and aeronautical information services to air traffic transiting Irish airspace, has been in cost reduction mode since March 2020.  The same approach is evident across 37 other air traffic control providers in Europe. 

In my role as Chair of CANSO HR Workgroup (Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation), a representative organization for 85 ANSPs across the world, it is clear that similar employee relations strategies are being deployed outside of Europe. In this regard, the main staff cost reduction measures have involved temporary lay-offs, shorter working weeks, pay reductions, reduction in overtime premia, unpaid leave, accelerated retirements and redundancy schemes. Reductions in operation expenditure including cessation of non-essential training and a halt on recruitment are evident while reductions in capital expenditure, given the high-tech nature of aviation equipment, is somewhat limited in order to protect the deployment of future capacity when air traffic returns.

The provision of air traffic control services is classified as an essential service. While the pandemic has resulted in a 70% reduction in traditional passenger traffic, cargo traffic has increased by 10% on 2019 levels. It is important the skies stay open to service humanitarian flights, delivery of vaccines and of course personal protective equipment. ANSPs must therefore continue to provide a service while also implementing cost reduction measures. This is a challenge, but a challenge that is being met, so far, by employers and staff representatives.

It is encouraging there have been very few industrial relations issues arising from the introduction of cost reduction measures in the air traffic management industry to date. This complements the excellent social dialogue processes in place across the aviation sector, including the skills of employer and staff representatives. 

From a European perspective, the collaborative approach to managing conflict has been positively promoted by the European Commission over the recent past by making funding available to employers and trade union groups to enhance social dialogue processes within the aviation sector. The most recent initiative in this regard resulted in social partners agreeing a Toolbox for Successful Social Dialogue in Air Traffic Management. This agreement was concluded between CANSO (comprising employer representatives) and staff representatives affiliated to the European Transport Workers’ Federation and Air Traffic Controllers European Unions Coordination. 

I believe the success of employers and trade unions in implementing cost containment measures –and indeed implementing workplace safety protocols in a spirit of collaboration and corporate orientation – is a positive step for the future state of employee relations in the aviation sector. There is no doubt that the human cost has been high through job losses in particular. But the sector is resilient and will need to be. While air traffic in 2020 was down 59% in Europe and across the world compared to 2019, it is expected that it will be 2026 before we see a return to 2019 levels of air traffic. It signals that cost containment is not leaving the employee relations agenda any time soon.  

There is no evidence to suggest that the long-term impact on employee relations will be negative as we move to a post-COVID environment. The processes and procedures that worked to deliver survival strategies will be called into action to meet rising expectations of aviation workers who will be seeking payback as we move into recovery and growth cycles.  Remote working may pose challenges for employee relations in the immediate term as many staff will seek to regularise atypical working arrangements. Some of the more practical issues will focus on orientating new recruits, supervision, productivity and implementing performance management policies. 

For now, employee relations practitioners must watch as the vaccine roll out continues across the world – this is clearly our only way out of the public health crisis. There can only be one winner in the race between the vaccines and the variants – let’s hope it’s the former.

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