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2022 in review – Aviation and Airports


Read on for our summary of the year in aviation, as well as our predictions for 2023

Okay, we can be open about it now: 2022 was the busiest ever year for our aviation executive search team. We would have laughed if you’d told us last Christmas – amid the Omicron wave and just weeks after the US reopened to vaccinated travellers – that we’d be saying that now. But a year is a long time in aviation, and we are delighted to have had our hands so full.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the main aviation trends we noticed in 2022, plus a few we predict for next year.


Europe and US particularly active

A large proportion of our hiring volume came from Europe and North America, with the US being especially busy – the country’s large domestic market meant US carriers were the first to return to hiring. While pre-COVID profits also helped airlines to weather the economic storm, pent-up demand for travel during lockdowns has left the industry playing catch-up on a scale we’ve never seen before. Indeed, European airlines were not far behind the US in returning to the talent market: as soon as borders reopened, demand for recruitment sprang back.

For us, 2022 has not followed the traditional seasonal trends of recruitment. The summer was not quiet, even in Europe, and the festive period does not appear to be slowing the volume of jobs coming to the market. Safe to say, it’s been pretty full-on throughout the year. The companies who did hire, hired a lot; however, these were predominantly based in Europe or North America.

High salaries and strong options for US candidates

In North America – especially the US – a particularly notable trend is the salary jump we’ve seen compared to other regions. We expect this to continue in 2023, given the US’ strong domestic market, the talent shortage, and the difficulty of making international hires there. Many US candidates are spoilt for choice and remain in a very strong position heading into next year.

Pressure on recruitment across the board

Dismissals, and subsequent shortages, of cabin and airport crew have been well-documented this year. However, the demand for travel has placed significant pressure on recruitment at executive level, too – and airlines losing many employees to other sectors has only added to the challenge. In the US and the UK, international hiring remains problematic due to visa policies in the former and the effects of Brexit in the latter. At the same time, towards the end of this year we are now seeing the re-emergence of recruitment in areas that were slower to open up after the pandemic; the volume of hiring is increasing month on month.

Operational and commercial demands

Our aviation team dealt with notably more operational searches in the first half of 2022. As airlines tentatively eased their way back into a world without travel restrictions, the first priority for many companies was operational recruitment. As the year progressed and the industry stabilised, we saw demand for commercial hires returning – even becoming a priority towards the second half of the year.

DEI more important than ever

One of our most significant findings this year is the sense among the aviation community that addressing diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) is a matter of urgency and must be prioritised. For example, there seems to be a growing understanding that recruitment practices of the past will have to change to reflect DEI needs. This is partly what inspired us to set up REACH, a group designed for inspirational (and aspirational) women in aviation. (Stay tuned for our forthcoming article specifically about the gender diversity gap at board level in the industry!)

While not every aviation business places the same emphasis on diversity, we are pleased to report that in 2022 we carried out more DEI market assessments in our aviation executive search practice than ever before. We have seen some airlines diversifying their C-suite not just by nationality, but also by experience; for example, increasing numbers of legacy airlines are hiring candidates from low-cost carriers. Many airlines want eclectic, international teams, reflecting the industry’s global nature.

We are always happy to tailor our services to meet our clients’ needs, at the same time as championing our own values around DEI.

Uncertain outlook for cargo

In the airport sector, personnel shortages among operational workers have dominated headlines this year. Amid a dearth of ground handling staff, we noticed a drop in cargo flights earlier in the year. It is worth pointing out that cargo transport was unusually intense during the pandemic; this is returning to more ‘normal’ levels at present. At the same time, however, cost of living issues have now reduced the number of goods being transported globally. These two factors have caused uncertainty as the industry recovers to a ‘new normal’. However, over the course of 2022, we did also notice that companies are beginning to look at more innovative, tech-driven solutions. Cargo operators will need to identify the right talent to take advantage of this opportunity.

Digital transformation in airports

Separately, we are also seeing increasing emphasis on digital transformation – specifically, to provide customised customer experience in airport retail. We expect to see such initiatives carry on into next year, with extra attention on frictionless travel also likely. Airports continue to look to digital transformation not only to provide a more personalised customer experience, but also as a way to automate various operational processes. This reduces the pressure on frontline staff and drives efficiency as airports continue to recover from the impact of COVID. However, airports seeking to maximise their digital transformation draws them into the cross-sector battle for talent – particularly as they look for candidates who can span digital transformation with operating experience in aviation.

What does 2023 hold for airlines?

COVID was a wake-up call for a lot of carriers – not least when it came to revamping their technology. Improving operational efficiency through digital transformation will be central to many airlines’ plans for 2023, as they look to do things differently in the aftermath of the pandemic. We expect to see more data-driven analytical talent in key operational roles.

We’ve noticed that companies across aviation are becoming more open to hiring non-industry talent – a trend that looks set to continue next year. Whether airlines will be able to hold on to sector-agnostic talent is another question. Regardless, we have seen the employment of more agile and creative recruitment methods as ageing workforces in certain functional specialisms (for example, aircraft engineers) remain a concern. We also expect increased hiring volumes in territories that have not returned to pre-COVID levels (e.g., the Middle East, Asia, Australia, and Latin America).


Passenger numbers to increase, with confidence rising at board level

Passenger numbers should be close to 2019 levels next year. IATA even reports that the industry is due to return to profit in 2023. Despite the cost of living crisis and recession warnings, we’re still anticipating pent-up activity from customers who haven’t been able to travel as freely as they would have liked over the past couple of years.

Airline executives will be comforted by the thought that any downturn in flight patterns as a result of the economic climate will still not be as severe as the impact of COVID-19 in 2020 – but as yields look set to drop for airlines, carriers may yet seek to diversify their revenue streams. Barry Klipp, CEO of InterLnkd, believes this may take the form of further complementary products for flights and holidays purchased – for instance, in fashion, beauty, and retail. Meanwhile, Caravelo CEO Iñaki Uriz Millan recently commented about an increase in the subscription model for flights next year – it will certainly be intriguing to follow developments there.

Regardless, the spike in passenger numbers should put wind in the industry’s sails – at the very least, at executive and board level. Many airline CEOs noted that they would stay in their jobs until their carriers returned to profitability – as such, we think it’s safe to assume that some C-suite figures will be back in the job market. Despite the relatively mature age of such candidates, larger structural changes at an organisational level due to senior figures retiring are probably a few years away yet.

We’ve heard rumblings that 2023 may be the year when start-up airlines begin to challenge legacy carriers in earnest; it will be interesting to watch this space and to see where they identify the talent required to challenge.

Tech skills will be in high demand

Airlines revamping their digital designs – at a time when tech workers’ transferable skills see them in high demand across industries – will mean further emphasis on non-industry digital hires, as airlines look to learn from other consumer-facing sectors. We’ve noticed that travel tech companies are selling into airlines in increasing numbers, which will likely become more prevalent as the market improves. Many airlines are effectively outsourcing these jobs for now, as many lack the capacity to conduct such changes in-house, or the talent is too expensive to bring in.

Other executive search trends

Something else we may see in 2023 is an upheaval in loyalty skills – i.e., a move away from points-based systems towards CRM, segmentation, and revised customer journeys. Consumers can expect to receive greater personalisation. ‘Programs have to evolve beyond cobrand points marketing and get back to basics – supporting the airline to sell tickets to the right people’, says Stuart Melim, CFO of StatusMatch.com.

Sustainability and CSR

In addition to DEI, another key facet of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is sustainability. Given the aviation industry’s contribution to CO2 emissions, this is a particularly pertinent subject; there is significant pressure for airlines to commit to being environmentally sustainable. Accordingly, more and more firms are hiring Chief Environmental Officers – as they target candidates with Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) backgrounds – or elevating existing sustainability roles to positions of greater prominence in their organisational structures.


As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that, as a result of the rising cost of fuel, IATA predicts higher ticket prices for air travel in 2023. Nonetheless, this could in turn encourage a switch to sustainable aviation fuel, as the price differential between SAF and jet fuel is now much lower than before.

Conclusion

We are pleased to note that the outlook for aviation in 2023 looks positive. Customers’ pent-up travel plans, the strong US market, and the return of territories that were slower to bounce back after COVID, point to a good year for the industry despite the global economic downturn.

The next few years will provide many opportunities for the best aviation talent; we would advise candidates to manage their careers accordingly, and to think carefully about next steps. Aviation businesses should take note and look after their best people. That may sound odd coming from an executive search firm, but remember – it is much easier to retain than to replace.



Happy holidays and all the best for next year!


Thank you for reading! If you need help with executive search in aviation, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

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