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Amy Brown headshot

Furloughed SAS Cabin Crew Retrained as Frontline Healthcare Workers

By Amy Brown
Furloughed SAS – Scandinavian Airlines cabin crew are volunteering to receive additional training to support front-line workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in Sweden

Furloughed SAS – Scandinavian Airlines cabin crew are volunteering to receive additional training to support front-line workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in Sweden.

In an ideal match of skills to crisis, SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) has offered its temporarily laid off cabin crew the chance to volunteer to support front-line medical workers in the fight against COVID-19. The move has been wildly popular among SAS employees as other airlines have followed suit. As many businesses ponder how to support relief efforts, airline crews, with their safety and emergency training, can make a unique contribution.

In mid-March, SAS, partly owned by the governments of Sweden and Denmark, laid off 10,000 staff - 90 percent of its workforce - to cut costs as air travel screeched to a halt. SAS recognized that its furloughed crew could be easily trained to help on the front lines of the pandemic, according to Karin Nyman, Vice President Brand & Communications at SAS. So, the airline offered employees the chance to take a three-day course in basic hospital duties to help fill the gaps in a strained Swedish healthcare system.

Hundreds of employees eager to retrain

The response was overwhelming, with some 500 employees applying for different types of jobs as part of the program. While it started in Sweden, employees in Denmark and Norway have also been offered a chance to join. “When we were about to do these temporary lay-offs, we contacted healthcare and elderly care organizations and asked if they would need some help. We got a very positive response. We were able to quickly set up training that was suited for our cabin crew who already receive as part of their job training an introductory course in caregiving and other skills that are needed in a crisis situation,” Nyman told TriplePundit.

Sweden, with a population of 10.2 million people, has so far had 18,926 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 2,274 deaths from the virus. With its lack of strict lockdowns, Sweden has taken a decidedly different, and controversial approach to its neighbors; the virus has been nearly 10 times as deadly in Sweden as in other Nordic countries.

“What has been really good to see in this is that there is a big attraction for SAS employees because people recognize that they have a very high level of service and are trained for a special crisis moment such as this,” she continued. “We’ve gotten feedback from several companies we have been supporting that our employees’ support has been very helpful. For us, it is amazing to see how quickly our employees transform and are able to use their skills in the health sector.”

According to Nyman, SAS is now receiving requests for their employees to pitch in to help in the pharmacy and logistics sectors, as well assisting at schools and with first responders like ambulance crews. “While we hope to be up in the air very soon, we are trying to be a facilitator between our employees and different organizations in society that have a big need in these difficult times.”

Other airlines take the same route as SAS

The fast-track healthcare course offered by Sweden’s Sophiahemmet University is mainly delivered online to comply with social distancing rules. The curriculum focuses on providing basis like theoretical knowledge about infectious diseases, patient confidentiality, hygiene and nursing methods, how to deliver information to patients and relatives and carry out administrative tasks. The course is free of charge and the companies involved with the training are not seeking to make a profit. Funding, about 7 million Swedish crowns ($698,000) is provided by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation.

Nyman said SAS has been contacted by other airlines about the program “and we’re happy to share about how we’ve set it up,” she added. In the United Kingdom, some flight attendants for EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic have volunteered to help out at the new National Health Service (NHS) hospitals being set up specifically for coronavirus patients. Singapore Airlines, which suspended virtually all of its flights until May 2020, has asked its flight attendants to assist in hospitals during this period as well. Similar initiatives to lend a hand are being explored in the U.S. as well, as Julie Hedrick, the national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, told NPR recently.

Untapped skills linger among the unemployed

But why stop with flight attendants with such a dire need for support on the front lines of the pandemic? Raj Panjabi, CEO of the NGO Last Mile Health, which brings primary care services to people living in remote communities, sees a potential army in the millions of Americans unemployed by the pandemic.

What if Americans who are unemployed by the pandemic could be hired to fight it?” he recently wrote in an op-ed for the World Economic Forum. “Around the world, local residents without a medical or nursing degree have been rapidly trained, hired, and equipped to respond to other epidemics that have spiraled out of control…We could rapidly expand our healthcare teams by investing in the people closest to the problem – hiring and training the millions of people put out of work by the epidemic.”

Panjabi suggests that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health departments can work with universities to develop rapid online programs to train the millions of Americans currently out of work in their own homes. Last Mile Health has since launched similar online and mobile training programs globally.

As U.S. companies grapple with historic unemployment and the quickly fading prospect of returning to business-as-usual, it might be time to see the American workforce—and their untapped skills—in a new light. 

Image credit: SAS

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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