Furloughed airline crews may be grounded right now, but many are providing a first-class upgrade to frontline medical workers fighting the Covid-19 pandemic

11 May, 2020

With air transport close to a standstill and tens of thousands of trained crew grounded on furlough or made redundant, what else can a skilled team of customer facing staff do during a lockdown? For a group of UK airline staff it has been the chance to do something extra special to support the efforts of the NHS staff that are fighting the Covid-19 pandemic on the frontline.

Project Wingman Foundation Ltd - now an official charity - may have been born as a light-hearted nod to Top Gun film and the famous camaraderie of aircrew, but it has been serious in its intention to bring together an unbranded, inter-airline aircrew initiative to provide support to the NHS frontline staff.

The concept is simple. The project brings a special lounge area within hospitals where frontline staff can take some time away from the pressures of their shift facing the current pandemic head on, day after day.

It now counts more than 4,000 crew from more than 15 different airlines among its volunteers (including examples from outside the UK) and since launching in early Apr-2020 has already expanded to 25 hospitals, with another 23 in the implementation phase and discussions ongoing with more than 30 more, covering a large number of cities in England and Scotland. It has now also spread with similar concepts established in USA and interest from other countries.

The concept was founded in Mar-2020 by Professor Robert Bor, a clinical psychologist for the Royal Free Foundation NHS trust alongside two UK airline pilots, Captain Dave Fielding at British Airways and Captain Emma Henderson at easyJet.

Professor Bor could see first-hand that those working in hospitals would benefit from some additional practical support during the current challenging times. And As one of the world's leading aviation psychologists and who oversees the British Airways pilot assistance network and easyJet peer support programmes, he understood the value that airline crews could offer thanks to the peer support skills they learn through aircrew training and working in a safety focused environment.

[perfectpullquote align="full" bordertop="false" cite="" link="" color="" class="" size=""] "We are all a team. What we are finding with Wingman is that we remain part of a wider family that is not defined by livery or company branding and we are all loving being part of the aircrew family."
Captain Emma Henderson, co-founder Project Wingman [/perfectpullquote]

Reaching out to the airline community Mr Fielding and Ms Henderson soon had a long list of airline crew willing to go into hospital settings to give NHS staff a real morale boost by looking after them during their breaks in these dedicated lounges.

"There are a lot of similarities between the two industries and crew have a unique set of customer service type skills which have proven to be extremely successful and beneficial in our lounges," Ms Henderson explains during an interview with the The Blue Swan Daily. "For me personally this came at a good time as I was about to be grounded and had been thinking for some time that it would be amazing to match crew up with the NHS."

"Over the years, we have come to appreciate the power of a peer - someone who listens sympathetically to a fellow professional and 'gets it'. There are many parallels between the aviation and medical world, and both groups are well versed in operating in a highly-disciplined, regulated, and pressurised environment.

"What Project Wingman is doing is essentially drawing on the fantastic and varied skills of flight crew and cabin crew, to support NHS frontline staff in a very personal and direct way. Most of us are grounded at the moment, so it makes sense to do something structured to help out in ways which play to our strengths for maximum effect," she adds.

The lounge provides a quiet space within the hospital, where staff can come before or after a shift and just collapse, decompress, and have a friendly face their with an offer of a cup of tea, a cake, and a chat. "The aim is to make them forget about the pressures of Covid-19 for a while, to make them feel a bit special and looked after," says Ms Henderson.

Once a "Wingman" request is agreed with a hospital, the project team launch into action: contacting local volunteers to set up a roster of airline crew, sufficient for a 24/7 operation, and sourcing equipment and donations that are then delivered by volunteers directly to the lounge.

The hospital has only to provide a "support area" with sufficient space to maintain social distancing; which Project Wingman's community of volunteers converts into a 'first-class' Wingman Lounge. The team work closely with the hospitals to ensure all of the Trust requirements to operate safely are met.

The first Wingman lounge was opened at the Whittington Hospital in north London in early Apr-2020 and requests are still coming in each day, according to Ms Henderson. "We hope to spread to the whole of the UK and already have lounges in Scotland as well as our first two lounges recently opening in New York. We have also had interest from Canada and some European Countries as well as New Zealand," she adds.

Find out more about Project Wingman and see ways that you can support the initiative.

The UK is this week starting to slowly ease its coronavirus lockdown restrictions. But, while the peak of Covid-19 infections may have been passed, it still remains at large and frontline medical professionals are continuing to work hard treating patients.

Airlines in the country are also starting to look again at future operations so some of the Wingman team may soon be back in the skies, albeit the introduction of a 14-day quarantine period for passengers arriving into the UK may influence demand. What is certain in this time of uncertainty is Project Wingman will continue to fly.

Ms Henderson tells us that as a commuter to support her flying role, she has been enjoying the downtime to take the opportunity to have some time at home. "It's rare for me to have this amount of time with my family," she explains. But, she also misses being part of her 'other' family.

"Being airline crew means you are part of a family - whether its your airline friends or your specific crew on the day. We are all a team. What we are finding with Wingman is that we remain part of a wider family that is not defined by livery or company branding and we are all loving being part of the aircrew family."