Filipino airline employees remain hopeful amid aviation’s ‘worst crisis’ in history

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Despite being a huge contributor to economic growth and globalization, the airline industry is actually one of the most volatile sectors. Commanding a low profit margin, it is also extremely susceptible to fluctuations in politics and socioeconomics. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Landing on deserted airports aboard near-empty planes, airline workers feel the trepidation in the air as the world faces this century’s biggest crisis: the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 cases breach the 181,500 mark globally, countries are going into lockdown. On March 16, President Rodrigo Duterte placed Luzon on “enhanced” community quarantine, suspending all forms of mass transport. With similar measures in many other countries, the transportation sector — especially the billion-dollar airline industry — is severely taking a hit.

Heading for descent

The airline industry has been a contributor to economic growth and globalization. In December 2019, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expected a net profit of USD 25.9 billion for the global airline industry in 2019.

However, the airline industry is actually one of the most volatile sectors. Commanding a low profit margin, it is also extremely susceptible to fluctuations in politics and socioeconomics.

According to IATA’s economics report released in January 2020, history shows that the SARS epidemic in 2003 has been “the most serious epidemic” that ever made an impact on traffic volumes in the recent period. “Overall in 2003, the loss of confidence and fears of global spread impacted both business and leisure travel to, from and within the region, resulting in Asia-Pacific airlines losing... $6 billion of revenues.”

“In the past, the airline industry has proven resilient to shocks, including pandemics,” the report added. “Even in the outbreak of SARS, monthly international passenger traffic returned to its pre-crisis level within nine months.”

On how the industry could bounce back from the COVID-19 epidemic: “While there are risks that this outbreak could cause a sizable disruption, history indicates that any effect on air transport would be temporary.”

Still, at this period, airlines stand to lose billions in sales, and cost-cutting measures are being put in place to temper the losses of a global industry that, according to IATA, employed 2.90 million people at the end of 2019. According to a recent CNN report that quoted consultancy CAPA Centre for Aviation, most airlines around the world may face bankruptcy by May, in what it calls “the worst aviation crisis in history.”

Landing on losses

“The main threat to our company’s operations is the multiple travel bans,” said Philip*, a pilot who works at an international airline. “More so now that there is a ban on domestic travel as well. Airline overhead costs are very high. Even when the aircraft is not flying, the company still has to pay for parking space, maintenance, lease, salaries, and many others.”

In order to minimize these losses, his company has put in place a few cost-cutting measures: pay cuts for top management positions, no pay raises, and the imposition of limits on non-essential company meetings, outings, as well as duty travel. Additionally, there have been talks about employees taking leaves without pay in order to further mitigate losses.

It’s a far cry from the lifestyle that airline employees are accustomed to. Aside from having a competitive salary with travel allowance, Philip, who typically flies for 70 hours a month, is entitled to a 90 percent discount on an unlimited number of flights — a benefit that is extended to his immediate family members.

This is on top of the free roundtrip tickets to any destination of their choosing, which employees are free to distribute to anyone.

For the longest time, working on a plane has always been considered a dream job. Back when flights were limited to the moneyed, in the era before budget airfares, few had the privilege of seeing the world — much less get paid for it. Moreover, pilots consistently placed on highest-paid job lists.

Today, Philip himself is possibly facing a reduced monthly income as a consequence of the reduced flying time. However, he says, his company has promised to continue to pay them their basic pay and allowances.

Time to climb

Yet despite the impact on their livelihood, airline employees, according to Philip, are making sacrifices in their individual capacities to help the airlines.

“I can really see the camaraderie among the employees of the company,” he says. According to him, his colleagues have been volunteering to go on unpaid leaves to help airlines mitigate cost as flights become fewer. Other employees, meanwhile, opt to work on their days off to ensure that all flights are manned. These sacrifices, of course, come with the proper safeguards to protect consumer-facing workers from transmission of the disease. “We understand that in order for the company to survive this crisis,” he said, “we all have to make sacrifices.”

Meanwhile, Ana*, who has been in the industry for 30 years, was one of 27 who were hired out of 5,000 aspirants when she applied. “Like many graduates of my time,” she recounts, “I rushed to hunt for a job and flipped the papers for opportunities. One of the many I applied to was an airline, which remains to be the only airline I have ever worked for.”

“I can’t really say that I chose to be a flight attendant as I never dreamed to be one,” she reflects, “I like to say that I was chosen.”

This confidence empowered Ana to serve for three decades, continuing to serve despite numerous hiccups along the way, such as the slump that the airline industry finds itself in today.

As chief purser, Ana helms her own team of ‘chosen’ ones: flight attendants who continue to be in service during a crisis, and not without their own worries. Following the “huge cut” on the airline flights, “all employees were asked, but not required, to take a three-week unpaid leave,” she added. “Most of us in my company rely solely on our salaries. We get extra earnings from our outport allowances, especially, on long lay-overs. Most of my younger colleagues now are on an hourly pay salary scheme, meaning, if they don't fly much, they'll get less. Hence, the pay cut from three weeks unpaid leave is a huge loss of income.”

Preparing again for takeoff

But having been with the company for a long time, Ana is confident that the airline industry can bounce back.

“I have witnessed how resolutely it bounced back from SARS and then again from the Asian Crisis, and I am confident that it will weather this COVID-19 pandemic just as well,” she said. “As for when, that I can not tell. But I am hopeful, especially for my younger colleagues.”

“After all, air travel is already a part of a day-to-day life,” she said. “Just like public buses and trains, airplanes are a necessity, and not merely a luxury.”

“But then if the inevitable happens… Uuwi nalang ako sa probinsya at magtatanim ng mais. Pwede rin mag-alaga na lang doon ng hayop.”

Until the dust settles on the COVID-19 pandemic, the job security and dreams of millions of airline workers remain up in the air. And as much as the most powerful leaders try to do the best they can, so are employees continuing to respond to their calling even if it costs them more than what they are paid for, even if they don’t get acknowledged — all so that the industry, and the economy, could take off again.

“[The] bottomline is,” Ana says, “we should all endeavor to rise above this pandemic.”

*names were changed upon request