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It is hard to ignore an obvious fact: most activities in aviation are not well-suited to work from home. In a McKinsey report ranking 800 jobs from their remote work potential, the aviation sector (transportation) was in the bottom 5 industries. From pilots to cabin crew, technicians to airport staff, the majority of roles require people to be on site. Does that mean work from home has only limited potential in aviation? Jainita Hogervorst is the Director of Aerviva Aviation Consultancy, a company based in Dubai that specializes in aviation recruitment and document management. In this article, she takes stock of the situation for remote and hybrid work in our sector and considers what the future holds.

Why remote work matters

In KPMG’s Aviation Leaders Report 2024, labor shortages are identified as a top challenge facing the industry. “There are multiple reasons for this shortage, such as the lag in new pilots coming online due to pauses in training programs during the COVID pandemic,” explains Jainita.

“The context has also changed since COVID,” she argues. “Hybrid or fully remote work is now a viable option in many sectors. This has pushed flexibility and well-being to the forefront of candidate’s minds, and aviation is not a sector that scores particularly well in these areas.” 2021 research by academics from Trinity College Dublin found that pilots experience high levels of work-related stress, fatigue, and familial strain. Researchers from the PFH Private University of Applied Sciences, Göttingen, found that cabin crew experience similar challenges.

“Today, they see their friends and family in other sectors enjoying the flexibility work from home brings, which makes recruitment and retention is even harder.” But, as a sector that depends on in-person work, is work from home possible?

Efforts so far to make remote work possible in aviation

Even before the COVID lockdowns, aviation companies were actively exploring the potential of remote work. “There were specific efforts in air traffic control and MRO to leverage technologies that could enable more remote activities,” explains Jainita.
“Then during COVID, those who could shift to work from home in our sector did so.”

Some Airlines were reluctant to make this shift, with headquarter people at American Airlines petitioning the company to be allowed to work remotely . On the other hand, many embraced work from home for their office staff. British Airways explored options to sell its 114,000 m2 headquarters building at Heathrow owing to the success of remote working (in 2023, it abandoned these plans as people returned to the office ).

“While digitalisation continues to be explored intensively, COVID did not provoke a fundamental shift,” argues Jainita. “We are still a long way off remote or hybrid work being available to most of the specialists in our sector.”

Limited remote work options in aviation

“A quick search through job sites will reveal options for remote work within our sector,” says Jainita. “These are typically in areas like business development and sales, marketing, data analytics, IT and R&D. Clearly, however, almost all operational tasks within the aviation sector cannot be done remotely,” Jainita points out.

Pilots and co-pilots

Given the shortages, remote piloting or co-piloting would certainly bring advantages if it could be made to work. However, there are significant, perhaps insurmountable, challenges. “Discussion of remote piloting and co-piloting started at least a decade ago when the industry started to respond to the potential for remotely piloted aircraft in commercial aviation,” explains Jainita. “Nevertheless, pilots associations have expressed consistently their concern with the potential for integrating remote piloting into commercial operations.”

There are concerns over extended minimum crew (eMCO) proposals that would reduce the number of pilots at the controls in an airliner. ALPA’s “Safety Starts with 2” campaign has been supported by other associations like BALPA and is focused on ensuring there remain 2 in-aircraft pilots for safety reasons. “While many of these concerns are focused on automation rather than remote work specifically, the safety and liability concerns still apply.”

Air traffic control and flight operations

In the case of air traffic control, systems like Frequentis’ remote digital towers were already in use in multiple countries before the COVID pandemic. Yet bodies like IFISA , the International Flight Information Service Association, have concluded that moving from remote digital towers to work from home is technically very challenging. “There are obvious risks related to secure internet connections, power supply redundancy and telecommunications – air traffic control towers use specific, custom-made equipment,” explains Jainita.

Similar concerns exist for roles such as schedulers and dispatchers (also known as Flight Operations Officers). In 2020, the FAA allowed a small number of airlines to experiment with dispatchers working from home, as opposed to from secure flight operations centers. “Even this limited move has been controversial,” comments Jainita. “Along with safety concerns, a key question here is liability. If there is a technical issue and the dispatcher is working from home, who bears the responsibility?”

Impacting the industry but not enabling work from home

The COVID pandemic raised a question. Can remote work be widespread within the aviation sector? 2 years on, the answer appears to be – not yet, and perhaps never. “In the near future, it seems very unlikely that these technical challenges and safety concerns will be overcome,” comments Jainita. “Technologies that enable remote activities will continue to impact the industry, especially in areas like training. The IATA and others now offer live virtual classrooms. And in MRO, there are wide-ranging applications for technologies like smart glasses to enable remote maintenance support.”

“However, this will not translate into work from home for most aviation specialists.” Seen in context, this does not have to be bad news. Pew Research found that 61% of all working people in the US are still fully working in an office or on-site. “Aviation is not the exception,” says Jainita. “If we consistently address candidates well-being, we can still offer compelling career opportunities in our sector. Research shows that working in person with colleagues enables better mentoring and more connections between colleagues. Promoting these benefits and showing that working in aviation can be exciting and rewarding, are what we need to focus on to address the talent shortage we currently face.”