Fear of Not Flying
March 15, 2016 By Rick Adams
Anxiety is not conducive to positive job performance. It may be especially concerning in high-risk roles – surgery, for example, or landing a helicopter on an oil rig platform on a dark and stormy night.
Most of us have been there at some time in our lives. Worried about losing our job. Perplexed about losing the house for mortgage non-payment. Difficulty sleeping. Hard to concentrate.
The oil and gas industry has been in free-fall the past year as a glut of oil on the world market has driven crude prices down to 12-year lows. Shell is cutting 10,000 jobs. BP is shedding 4,000 people, 600 of them from its North Sea offshore operations. During 2015, Suncor cut its workforce by 1,700. ConocoPhillips is reducing capital spending by 17 per cent. Brazil’s Petrobas by 25 per cent.
Across the industry, an estimated US$400 billion in previously planned investment has been cancelled or delayed. Of the 330 fields in the U.K. North Sea, more than one-third may close in the next five years, according to oil consultancy Wood Mackenzie. The international offshore rig count for January 2016 was 242, down from the 314 counted in January 2015. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates 100,000 direct and indirect jobs have gone by the wayside.
Naturally, there’s a ripple effect. Fewer oil rig workers, who must work longer shifts. Which leads to fewer helicopter flights to and from the rigs, requiring fewer pilots. Which leads to a decline in helicopter sales and services.
Textron’s Bell Helicopter in Montreal is shrinking by another 200 employees, which will bring the workforce to about 1,000, or half the level of a few years ago. Airbus Helicopters received only two orders last year for the H225 (previously the EC225), compared with 32 the year before. The oil slump also led to abandonment of the Turbomeca Makila 2B engine. The share price of CHC Group dropped so precipitously it was set to be de-listed from the New York Stock exchange, though profits actually increased in its U.K. segment. Bristow Group, which relies on the oil sector for nearly 60 per cent of its revenues, has also suffered a significant valuation decline. Era may cancel six of nine Finmeccanica (former AgustaWestland) AW189s on order. Even ORNGE has been affected – the Ontario air ambulance service wants to sell its AW139 fleet, but would lose millions on the transaction because of the drop in used helicopter values.
The cutbacks have exacerbated tensions on the front line and led to safety concerns. Via a survey by the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) – which includes North Sea helicopter pilots – pilots reported that the threat of job loss is hampering their ability to sleep and focus. One pilot stated: “Pilots’ heads are not in the cockpit.” Another said, “Crews are concerned and distracted and this is reflected in an increase of mistakes and lack of awareness.”
Together with four other trade unions, the BALPA launched the Offshore Coordinating Group (OCG), an alliance which vows to fight job losses, pay cuts, safety and unilateral changes to terms and conditions for workers. The OCG intends to commission research reports, the first of which will consider working hours in safety-critical occupations, to be published this spring.
Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the BALPA, said, “No one wants to compromise safety but it is inconceivable that prices for contractors can be squeezed without an impact on safety.” McAuslan said companies had asked staff to come forward if the situation was affecting their ability to perform, but he said pilots felt an admission could leave them more vulnerable to being cut.
CHC’s regional manager of flight operations in the U.K., Jon Hopkinson, who has 18 years’ flying experience, responded that safety was at the core of CHC’s operations. “We are committed to safety and we will have a fair, open, and transparent conversation with [the] BALPA and all of our pilots.” A Bristow spokesperson stated: “We remain resolute in our focus on safety throughout this process and have ensured that all pilots who are provisionally selected for redundancy are not permitted to fly. We will continue to work with [the] BALPA on ways to mitigate the proposed redundancies.”
Flying is a challenging job under the best of conditions. Let’s hope the industry players can work out schemes to minimize the angst before it contributes to an accident.
Rick Adams is chief perspectives officer of AeroPerspectives, an aviation communications consultancy in the south of France, and is editor of ICAO Journal.