Virgin Australia New Zealand Captain Andy Pender says encouraging open conversation is the best way to ensure pilots and air traffic controllers (ATCs) seek support from their peers in times of need.
“It’s our job to let members know that talking helps,” Pender said. “Communicating with colleagues, who understand the workplace and the external pressures of our work, is invaluable.”
He adds that it’s also about peers and family members recognising the signs that ‘something’s not quite right’ and encouraging pilots and ATCs to reach out to their support networks.
The 33-year-old pilot will leave his role as Peer Assistance Network (PAN) coordinator and Critical Incident Response Programme (CIRP) coordinator to lead the welfare teams as Medical and Welfare Director.
Pender began volunteering for the Medical and Welfare Subcommittee in 2012 and was part of the team that planned, developed and implemented the successful PAN programme, which launched in 2015. Along with PAN and CIRP, the NZALPA welfare offering includes the Professional Standards Programme (PROSTAN), Human Intervention Motivation Survey (HIMS) and the insurance options.
“I get a kick out of seeing people emerge from that ‘dark place’ or ‘low spot’, and providing them with the right tools to see them through it,” Pender said.
“The best thing is that the longer we action tools like PAN, we can see that they are consistently and reliably performing with positive results for our members.”
Although some members are still reluctant to call on the service, the Medical and Welfare team is working on breaking down barriers; it is encouraged by the spectrum of members who are already engaging. For Pender, it’s all about normalising the important conversations we need to have.
“We are in a profession that by nature, as fulfilling as it is, does go against almost every health recommendation,” Pender said.
“We work remotely, our hours put stress and strain on our relationships, we have high stress levels and disturbed and changing sleep patterns; it’s absolutely normal for people to struggle with these demands in some way. PAN exists to confidentially understand the issues we’re having and help us work through them.
Pender lives in Christchurch with his family, but is based from Auckland for trans-Tasman flights with Virgin.
“I remember having a helicopter flight when I was four and it’s all been about being a pilot since then,” Pender said.
He started studying for his Commercial Pilots Licence when he was 16 at Christchurch Flying School in Wigram, before working for sky-diving companies for four years. He then flew for Eagle Airways (Air New Zealand Link) and joined Virgin six years ago. He was promoted to Captain in 2015.
“Now, in my role as Medical and Welfare Director, if I can have a hand in protecting the wellbeing of my fellow aviation colleagues, and watch them excel in their career – while promoting aviation safety in New Zealand – well, that’s the job done,” Pender said.
His main aim during the next few months is to focus on awareness of the wrap-around care that NZALPA provides.
Air New Zealand and Jetconnect have committed to supporting programmes such as PAN, with the first meeting with airline management about how they work together, held last month. Negotiations with Virgin are ongoing and Pender, as a valued employee of the airline, hopes to have them on board by the end of the year.
“The exciting thing about gaining commitment from Virgin is that they have already shown interest in rolling out PAN to our Australia colleagues too, and that can only be good for the industry as a whole.”
<< Peer Support Volunteer recounts latest training session ATC Update >>