Flying in the Age of Coronavirus

MOSTLY, this has been an exercise in stress. I suppose that’s an ambiguous term, so constituently we’re talking about fear, dread, and uncertainty. Not a fear of the virus. Coming down with COVID-19 isn’t what scares me. What scares me is what the airline business might look like by the time things settle out — whenever that might be.

Particularly astonishing was the speed at which things went to hell. In February, three friends and I were relaxing around a swimming pool in the Philippines talking about the size of our profit sharing checks and contemplating which aircraft we might bid in the months ahead. Within days — days! — the entire industry would be avalanched by panic and brought to a virtual halt.

The first three months were the worst. March, April, and May. Scant few flights were operating, and nobody had the slightest idea what lay ahead. These were some of the most stressful days of my life. Since then, things have settled into a certain routine. It’s not a happy routine by any stretch, and little about it feels normal. It’s just a routine.

If nothing else, I’ve kept busy. You might be surprised to hear that I’ve been spending more time aloft than ever. I’ve flown more in the past four months than in any four-month period of my entire career. Since June I’ve been to Europe twice, Africa five times, and back and forth across the country more times than I can count.

Normally I’m not the most ambitious pilot. The ancillary hassles of the job — the delays, the hellishness of airports, and the stress of commuting between the city I fly from (New York) and the city where I live (Boston) — encourage me to keep my schedule light and my blood pressure low. I might be on the road for twelve days in a month, logging around 70 pay hours. The average pilot aims closer to 80 and is gone for two weeks. But these aren’t normal times. Suddenly airports are quiet, delays are nonexistent, commuting is a breeze. It’d be perverse to say that flying is “better” than ever, but certainly it’s easier. Easier for all the wrong reasons, but it’s a way to keep my head up and maintain a sense of normalcy. So I’ve been doing it as much as I can.

Besides, there’s little else to do. What is life now but a sad morass of masks and placards and agitated people. So much of life has come undone that I dread the most innocuous of tasks and errands, like a trip to Trader Joe’s or a walk to the Post Office. And the extent to which the American public seems to have acquiesced to all of this leaves me fearful of the future. I’m not talking about wearing masks or following restrictions; I’m talking about accepting as normal a world that is anything but. More than once I have heard people shyly admit they are enjoying this. Hence, I’m happier on the job, where I feel engaged and useful, than I am at home, where I’m apt to stew and wallow.

Though here too, the damage is visible at every turn: the empty planes, the desolate concourses and shuttered shops. A stroll through an airport in the COVID era is, on the one hand, a relaxing one, free of the usual ruckuses and long lines. On the other hand it’s a way of beholding just how massively this crisis has impacted aviation. There’s a fine line between peaceful and haunting. It’s nice to be free of the noise and crowds, but for an airline employee it’s also a little terrifying.

Then we have the small things, the obstacle course of petty annoyances that now litter the travel experience. Like the endless stream of COVID-related public address announcements. Or the fact that every hotel room amenity now comes wrapped in plastic (because this somehow “saves lives,” and because if the world needs one thing it’s more plastic waste). Or needing to strategize over how to score food during layovers in locked-down cities.

There’s little to feel optimistic about, though at least I’m busy.

Not all pilots have this opportunity. Huge swaths of the pilot ranks have been sitting idle. Seniority is everything at an airline, and I’m high enough on the roster to avoid this fate, but many of my colleagues haven’t set foot in a cockpit in weeks or even months. Airlines are utilizing different fleets at different rates; at a given carrier, 767 crews might be busier than A320 crews, for example, or vice-versa. Some airlines have been operating long-haul cargo charters, which is keeping their biggest planes — and their pilots — surprisingly busy. Other fleets, meanwhile, have been shut down almost entirely, meaning those pilots are doing nothing.

The job itself is little different, but now has the added challenge of keeping focused in a time of angst and worry. Before every takeoff is a crew briefing, where we talk through any threats or difficulties that might lie ahead. Most of these spiels now include a line or two about concentration. “We’re all a little distracted, so let’s remember to follow procedures and stay disciplined…”

In the rows behind us, the customers savor those empty adjacent seats they always dreamed about. People are afraid, we’re told, and you read about the guy or woman who causes a commotion over masks and gets hauled off by the airport cops. But I’m not seeing this. On the contrary, passengers seem blithely content. There’s room to spread out, the flights are on time, and the TSA checkpoint is a breeze. If you’re concerned about getting sick, a Department of Defense study released in October says the risk of catching COVID-19 on an airplane, as long as everyone is masked, is just about nonexistent. The air on planes has always been cleaner than people think, and it’s even cleaner now. In addition, cabins are being deep-cleaned after every flight, including a wipe-down of all trays, arm-rests, lavatories and so on. Those fancy business class menus have been curtailed — or “modified” as many airlines describe it — but otherwise there’s little not to like. Flying hasn’t been this comfortable in decades.

There’s a facetiousness in my voice when I say that, of course. For the workers, it’s hard to enjoy the ride when your company is losing twenty million dollars a day.

My take on this whole mess is no doubt tempered by earlier career hardships. I’ve been through two airline bankruptcies, one of which resulted in the company liquidating, and in the wake of the terror attacks of 2001 I spent five years on furlough. That’s airline talk for being laid off. I was in my mid-thirties at the time, in the middle of what customarily would be a pilot’s “prime-earning years.” Instead of saving money and making a good living, I scraped by as a freelance writer. This was, in a sense, an adventurous and successful half-decade; had I not lost my flying job, it’s unlikely the “Ask the Pilot” enterprise, or my book along with it, would ever have come to be. But despite the accolades, the book tour to Rome, the TV crews that often came to visit and the satisfaction of having used my improvisational talents to spin a little gold from a rotten situation, this was a long and financially bleak hiatus.

And when a pilot is out of work, for whatever reason, he or she cannot simply slide over to another airline and pick up where they left off. The way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. You lose everything. So any threats to our jobs or companies make us very nervous.

Five years on the street left me in a career no-man’s land, and upended my whole sense of self as a professional. Was I even a pilot any more? When I finally was called back, early in 2007, all I knew for sure is that I never wanted to live through that again.

And I didn’t expect to. Oh, sure, for any airline worker who endures a crisis — a furlough, a merger, a bankruptcy — nothing is ever again certain or taken for granted. No matter how rosy things are the moment, there’s always a hum of dread, a shoe waiting to drop, in the back of your mind. But this? This? Nobody foresaw a cataclysm of such speed or magnitude.

I have my ways of dealing with it. Others have theirs. On and on it goes.

 

Photos by the author.

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TERMINAL RACKET. AIRPORT NOISE LEAVES US REELING.
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16 Responses to “Flying in the Age of Coronavirus”
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  1. Tod says:

    At your airline is it a case of pilots who are rated on certain aircraft getting more and better work than others? I can imagine (I might be wrong about this) that the wide body aircraft wouldn’t be getting much work?

  2. KD says:

    To Simon: The problem is that by the time the junior pilots become senior pilots, they don’t want anything to change because they reap the rewards of years of pain (?). Thus, the whole cycle repeats itself.

    The pilots have only themselves to blame for the seniority system.

  3. Selena says:

    I appreciate your view of what you see as a pilot and how you have seen things change. I do not believe there is one firm answer to the new world problem. IF there was we would of had the solutions months ago. I agree with you that it scares me to see how empty many buildings are. People have this misconception that all will be normal again. It will not. Behaviors have changed and that will result in permanent job losses. My profession is not in aviation and I can see the writing in the wall. I have my own business and can tell you that business travel will never come back to how it was pre-covid. Why? It costs a lot of $ and companies have lost a lot of it. They will be on a mission to get that back which will be years. They have embraced Zoom. It will change how we all work. Some will not return to work. It saddens me.

  4. Martha Aarons says:

    Chandelle, if you’re not an epidemiologist, infectious disease specialist or even a doctor you don’t really know enough to be dismissive of this disease. I’d like to know what diseases you’re comparing it to. I have a family full of doctors and everything they were saying as early as last March has been borne out. Moreover, the documented cavalier behavior (on videos) involving disregard of distancing and defiance of masks on all the big holiday weekends, this fall in colleges, and so on, was clearly correlated to subsequent predicted spikes. It doesn’t take a doctor to connect those dots. There’s a lot of wishful thinking going on when people downplay the seriousness and contagion of COVID19. To people who resent the inconvenience of masks in public and in confined spaces, I ask how they would feel if their surgical team didn’t bother the next time they have surgery. Moreover, it falls in the same category as drunk driving, in contrast with, say, helmet-wearing for motorcyclists. I suspect you agree with measures to prevent drunk driving to protect you and those you care about.

  5. Joe says:

    Thanks again for an insightful look into your world

  6. Jeff Tunnell says:

    I echo the comments made by Jeremy. As a long time reader and consumer of multiple copies of your books. I find this to be your most disappointing posting. Very glad your job is intact.

  7. Simon says:

    Patrick, you’ve written about the strict adherence to seniority before and how airlines do not let you transfer “sideways”. I’m curious if/why pilots or pilot unions haven’t tried to topple this system.

    Seems to me what this does is basically remove market forces on the labor market, in a way that eliminates the need for airlines as employers to actually compete with each other for good employees. Usually when an industry colludes to circumvent market forces, it comes under scrutiny. Have attempts been made to change this practice? How can airlines keep this up? Do pilots have no way to change a system that appears to be entirely rigged against mobility in the labor market?

  8. Jeremy says:

    “the extent to which the American public seems to have acquiesced to all of this leaves me fearful of the future” — was not expecting to see this from you. To whine about the temporary inconvenience of wearing a mask or eating outdoors at restaurants in light of hundreds of thousands of dead is really something and is quite a tell that you have never known any real hardship. There will be a vaccine soon, in the meantime, some perspective is in order.

    • Patrick says:

      I think you misinterpreted what I said. I have no problem with a mask policy, so long it’s rational and effective. For instance, wearing masks on planes or in stores, etc. Wherever it helps. What I don’t agree with is what I call “performative” mask-wearing (that is, doing it to prove a point and to feel sanctimonious), and forcing others to follow suit even in situations where it serves no purpose, such as when swimming in the ocean or sitting alone in an empty park.

      There is a lot of that around where I live: people who insist that others wear masks outdoors, even when not remotely close to other people. I don’t like being yelled at, whistled at, hissed at, and shot dirty looks because I won’t abide by something so patently stupid.

      Further, because I agree with or follow a mask protocol — or any other COVID-related restriction — doesn’t mean that I like or enjoy it, or that I want it to last forever. OF COURSE these measures are frustrating. Nobody should WANT things to be this way.

      As for a “sense of perspective,” I accept your point. However, I could point out that 80,000 Americans died from the flu in 2018. Shouldn’t we all have been wearing masks and social distancing? In 1968, 100,000 Americans, and one million people worldwide, died during the H3N2 pandemic… a pandemic at least half as deadly as this one (so far), and it barely made the news! How many lives is “too many?” When do things make the jump from a health crisis to a global emergency?

    • Patrick says:

      What I mean about acquiescence is the ways in which so many people seem to be just fine with how things are. I’m not talking about wearing masks; I’m talking about accepting as normal a world that is anything but.

  9. Simon says:

    I get the economic hardship. And I get all the angst that creates. I really do. It’s also why I implore politicians to pass relief measures that benefit Main Street.

    What I do not get is this stubborn resistance to taking a couple of very simple and near-zero cost measures that will help us all come through this alive and healthy. My grandfather’s generation was asked to get on a boat for 8000 miles and then unload on a foreign beach facing a barrage of MG42 fire, mortars, and tanks. My generation is being asked to were a mask, wash our hands, and not get close to people outside our household. I think I’ll manage that sacrifice.

  10. Greg says:

    Be happy you are in an industry that appreciates seniority and all the knowledge that comes with it. We folks that fly certainly appreciate the experience you have. I had a pilots license many years ago. I managed to get my IFR rating along with commercial license/multi eng. and intended to get what was known at the time as my ATR. The requirements were very high then and I could not afford to continue so I went to an other career. My career required me to fly on numerous airlines to many countries. When I looked into the cockpit of an airplane with both the pilot and co-pilot looking like they may need burping after a meal I got a bit nervous. When I asked them how many hours they had I just sat down and hoped for the best. Good luck to you and I hope you keep building seniority. We need gray hair in the cockpit.

  11. Jason says:

    Similar here on the charter side of the industry. I’m one of the lucky pilots still employed, and we’ve learned to navigate getting food and other complications of COVID. Big changes in the types of business we’ve been doing. Business aviation has dropped close to zero, same for pro sports. We are flying more families than ever, but the industry has lost a tremendous amount of volume to the lack of business travel.

    As to how we have “acquiesced” to the restrictions… I think what went into place after 9/11 was (and remains) more intrusive and objectionable than anything under COVID. These people who start yelling about the Constitution over wearing masks – where were they when we created an entirely new section of government dedicated to hassling people about carrying water bottles through airport security?

    No, bemoaning that we have docilely accepted restrictions to put some kind of a dent in the 200,000 + death toll doesn’t pass the giggle test. Let’s say that again: 200,000 dead and climbing. I’m happy to wear a mask and get takeout instead of eating indoors at restaurants while I’m on the road.

  12. chandelle says:

    I was at once astonished and galled by the number of people around me who began speaking as early as in April that whatever we were subjected to in terms of having to wear masks, maintain social distance and the rest of it as being the new normal. Was six weeks all that it took to upend our lifestyle in the manner that it’s been made out to be? Far too much lugubrious panicking, if you asked me. COVID-19 is pestilential and dangerous but nowhere near some of the other nasty diseases that have afflicted small and large pockets of population.

    IMO, the current situation will come to an end, and sooner than is generally assumed presently.

  13. Peter says:

    “And the extent to which the American public seems to have acquiesced to all of this leaves me fearful of the future.” Acquiesced? I think not. I’m more fearful of the future because of the people who refuse to acknowledge science and just won’t put in the slightest effort or accept the smallest inconvenience to protect their fellow citizens.

  14. Richard says:

    Glad you’re hanging in there. Your blog gave me a random realization that I’m sure I’ve noticed before but had never paid attention to – your picture of the chair reminded me that even though there aren’t really that many large domestic airports, an awful lot of them have that same chair. Its unfortunate that we can’t be a little bit more heterogeneous especially in the places (like concourse chairs) where there’s really no national reason to standardize.

    Anyway, thanks for the occasional entry, they’re always fun to read.