2020: A Pilot's view
It has been a while since I wrote my last blog, and if certain memes are to believed, it’s because 2020 has been about 97 months long so far. I won’t deny that this year has been different from any that have come before, and because of my career as an airline pilot I’m getting a lot of questions from friends about my job this year: “Are you still flying? Did you have to retire? Are you furloughed? Is it safe to fly?”
First things first. I have not been forced to retire, and I have not been furloughed. But that doesn’t really cover the dire situation my industry is facing because of the Covid-19 pandemic. For me personally, my airline has been hit hard by the pandemic, probably more so than most other airlines for many reasons. The airline is based in Honolulu, and its stated business goal is to provide the best possible transportation and experience to and from Hawaii for both tourists and locals. The pandemic however has forced Hawaii to close down, essentially shutting its doors to all tourists and mandating a 14-day quarantine for all incoming passengers except for essential workers. That means if you wanted to go on vacation to Hawaii at any time since April you had to sit in a hotel for two weeks before you got to go to the beach – if you could find a hotel. Most have been shuttered since the quarantine was announced. And at times even going to the beach was against the law as a variety of policies and proclamations alternately shut parks, beaches, restaurants and more. Mostly, the state was worried about increasing infections in a state with limited ICU beds and medical supplies. It was an understandable reaction, even if it didn’t follow the best guidance from medical authorities.
While the medical issues forced airlines to cut way back, the operational costs to the airlines didn’t recede nearly as much. Aircraft lease payments, salaries, insurance, gate rental, time-dependent maintenance checks, debt service and more kept the bills rolling in. With only about 10% of the normal number of flights operating, there simply wasn’t much cash coming in. The airlines were losing millions of dollars a day. And for all of us in the aviation industry the hardest part of dealing with the pandemic was the uncertainty of what would happen next. How does the infection spread? How fast? How many would die? Would it be over quickly as immunity came into play, or would it be a battle just to slow an every-growing spread? How will my airline handle the pandemic? As we know now, eight months after the first infections hit the U.S., it was the more pessimistic outlooks that were correct. And to deal with those issues, airlines had to cut back. A lot.
It all happened incredibly quickly too. I’d had two trips in early March, one to Osaka Japan and one to Sydney Australia. After the Australia trip I had the rest of the month off for vacation where we planned on visiting our son, who is attending college in North Dakota. In just the week between my last flight and our first few days in North Dakota the world imploded with a massively rising infection rate, and signs that the rules for living were about to change drastically. We weren’t sure if the airlines were even going to be flying on the date we were planning on going home, so we rebooked and went home to Seattle several days early. I’d already received my schedule for April, but in a rare move the airline cancelled a large portion of its flying for April and we re-bid our schedules. Since there was already going to be a much smaller schedule than originally planned an agreement between the company and pilot’s union was worked out allowing us to take the month off and still make about two thirds of our normal minimum pay. It seemed like a good deal since there was so little flying that if I did go to work I would just be sitting around Honolulu, not working, and not home either. Taking the leave would also allow the more junior pilots who might be vulnerable to upcoming cutbacks a chance to fly more and put away a bit more savings. My wife agreed so I put in for the leave, thinking it might last a month or two. Instead, because of the ongoing spread of the virus, I took that type of leave month by month through September. Including the vacation in March it was seven months from my last flight until the next one in early October. Along the way I did go to Hawaii once in August to do my annual recurrent ground school and simulator training. But for me personally, despite the harsh conditions in the industry, I did enjoy my time off. It was the first time in decades I’d had so much time at home all in a row. It was like a practice retirement, perhaps giving me and my wife a view of what would happen in a little over six years when I will hit the magical age where the FAA says I am suddenly not capable of flying an airliner. I did some work in the shop, I worked in the garden, I spent a lot more time in the kitchen, and mostly just enjoyed being with my wife again. During the summer we would sit on our deck in the evenings and watch airplanes and satellites go by overhead. I flew as an instructor at the flying club I belong to at the Renton airport so I could keep my hand in the aviation world and continue doing what I love – flying. And we took daily walks around the neighborhood, masks at the ready in case we ran into friends. In August I drove with my son back to North Dakota to get him settled in the dorm for his second year there. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. I spent way too much time in lines at Costco looking for toilet paper and cleaning supplies, and even with all the free time it didn’t seem smart to head out for short trips around the Northwest. The whole point was to isolate and stop the spread of the virus. So we spent essentially all those months within a few-block radius of our home. But even with those restrictions, it was much more enjoyable overall than I thought it would have been.
In the meantime my airline, like all the others, started to adjust. After negotiations with the union the company offered early retirements and longer-term leaves of 6 to 24 months instead of the month-to-month leave I was on. These new events would help soften the blow of pilot furloughs we knew were coming. In fact, the leave I was using wouldn’t be available after September. I considered taking one of the longer leaves, but the reduced income did not match up with having a son in college and a new house about to begin construction, so it was back to work for me. But Hawaii was not the same place I’d left back in March. Literally more than a thousand of my co-workers were no longer there – pilots, flight attendants, and a lot of the general staff were gone, either taking an early retirement or simply laid off.
And a lot of little things were different too. My car’s battery had died after not being run for months. Even though I was an ‘essential worker’ and allowed to come into Hawaii without a 14-day quarantine, I was still limited to going out of my condo only for work, exercise, and to get food. Waikiki was like a ghost town, weirdly empty at all hours of the day. The beaches, normally overflowing with families on vacation were empty except for a few surfers going into and out of the water.
Yet, we all seemed to adjust to the new normal. Without the usual flow of tourists my airline had to look for other sources of revenue. We started flying a lot more cargo-only flights than we had before. It wasn’t an ideal solution, as our passenger planes were not outfitted to carry cargo in the main cabin, meaning we could only take what we could fit in the lower baggage areas. This cargo operation has kept more of us flying and doing routes we would normally not get to operate. But it is only a way to slow the financial bleeding, not stop it.
The state of Hawaii had delayed its reopening to tourists several times, but eventually even that roadblock eased. As of just a couple of days ago the state finally put in place a pre-travel testing requirement that allowed visitors to come into Hawaii without having to quarantine for two weeks. Just this evening as I walked through Waikiki I saw more people around than had been here in months. Cars, music from restaurants, people on the sidewalks: Things that had been missing for so long.
Despite the progress however, there are still many sad things to contemplate. The U.S. government acted quickly this spring to provide money as a lifeline to the suddenly struggling airlines. As a stipulation, the airlines could not furlough anyone until the end of September, otherwise they would have to repay the money. Pretty much all airlines did that and kept the employees on through September, but as the pandemic dragged on and Covid fatigue set in, the hoped-for renewal of the payroll support program didn’t materialize and on October 1st the first batch of our pilots were out of work and on furlough – 73 of them to start. More will be jobless soon unless additional support comes from the government. Even if the coming vaccines work extraordinarily well, it will be months if not years before we can bring our service up to the level it was early this year and bring back our furloughed coworkers. Our nation’s poor response to the pandemic compared to other countries shows itself not only in the harsh numbers of dead and ill, but in the more subtle statistics of the jobless, the lost income, the lost savings, the lost dreams, the bitter reality of uncertainty for the future.
We have the hope of science to provide a vaccine that will eventually allow something like normalcy to reappear. We have the knowledge that eventually all this heartache and turmoil will pass. But humans have a difficult time dealing with uncertainty, sometimes preferring instead to ignore what is real for what is wished-for. This isn’t a time for wishes though. From a biological standpoint the virus and our body’s reaction to it are completely unchanged from what we had this spring. There is no immunity, there is no cure. There is only the intelligence of us as citizens and our scientists doing what we can to slow the spread, which means wearing a mask and social distancing until we can have widespread immunizations. A recent scientific study showed that flying passenger flights with everyone wearing a mask is one of the safest things you can do short of staying locked up at home. My position may be a bit unique in this industry, as I was a biology major in college focusing on molecular biology – DNA, genetics, and how it all works. So I understand not only how the virus works, but what its effect is on the airline industry from an up-close and personal perspective.
And I also have a huge degree of empathy for the more junior employees who have already lost their jobs. I was furloughed once in my career at this airline, from 2003 to 2006. It was a very difficult time in my life, despite being able to continue as a pilot at other airlines for most of those years. I know the uncertainty our current furloughees feel, and I hope their time away is shorter than mine was.
The airline industry is uniquely vulnerable to a natural disaster like this. The operation of any airline requires a constant flow of money, passengers, training, refining operations, enhancing income and limiting unnecessary expenses. After many decades of ups and downs the industry as a whole had settled down into a fairly sustainable rhythm in the last decade or so, learning how to maintain itself profitably even as the normal economic ebb and flow moved the world around it. It was working well, but required all its parts to keep moving. New employees needed to come in to replace the ones leaving. Revenue needed to flow continuously to support new planes, new routes, fancier terminals, and the general operation of the business. But just as the insurance industry has a great fear of ‘acts of god’, so to does the airline world. There is only so much a business can plan for and still consider it a reasonable entry on the expense sheet. Covid-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime event that smashed that carefully arranged web of operation. We’re now picking up the pieces and trying to understand how they fit together, and unfortunately, what pieces have to be thrown away.