Q&A With the Pilot, Coronavirus Edition

UPDATE: July 22, 2020

Q: How about a general comment or recommendation on the safety of flying during COVID-19. Should passengers be afraid?

The risks of contracting COVID-19 might be slightly higher on a plane than in certain other settings, but with everyone masked, middle seats empty, etc., they are still very low overall. The air on planes has always been cleaner than people think, and is even cleaner now. In addition, cabins are being disinfected and deep-cleaned after every flight, including a wipe-down of all trays, arm-rests, lavatory surfaces and so on.

At my airline, pilots, believe it or not, have been contracting COVID at a higher rate than flight attendants (though neither rate has been “high”), despite being isolated in the cockpit. That should underscore just how unlikely transmission is between passengers.

I’ve been flying a lot of late, both within the U.S. and a little bit overseas. In the past couple of months I’ve been to New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and San Francisco, among other places, plus two trips to Africa and one to Holland. COVID-19 itself is among the lesser of my worries. What frightens me is the destruction to society caused by our responses to it, necessary or otherwise.

Q: Planes are mostly empty right now. How does that affect the way a jet handles?

First, although fewer planes are operating, not all of them are lightly loaded. Flights have been consolidated and many are full — or as close to full as you’ll get in this environment, with many carriers having blocked off middle seats.

Second, passengers and their luggage comprise only a portion of a plane’s total weight — and that portion can be surprisingly small, especially on larger jets that carry a lot of fuel. For instance, the maximum takeoff weight of a Boeing 747 is about 850,000 pounds. The weight of 400 passengers (basically a full cabin) and their carry-ons is around 72,000 pounds. That’s under ten percent of the total.

It becomes more of a factor on smaller planes, but it’s still not as significant as you might think. The maximum weight for a 150-seat Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 is around 150,000 pounds. A full complement of passengers is roughly 27,000 pounds, or 18 percent of the total.

When I’m flying a 767 back from Europe, our fuel load alone might be 80,000 pounds. With every seat taken (those were the days), the combined weight of the plane’s occupants and carry-ons is under half that.

But now imagine a short, mostly empty flight. Here you have a low passenger load, a small amount of fuel, and perhaps no cargo. In this case the aircraft is substantially lighter than what the crew is used to, and it will handle differently.

The most noticeable change will be slower takeoff and landing speeds. Depending on the runway and configuration settings (flaps, slats, thrust), your liftoff speed (Vr) could be 20 or more knots below normal. This is a good thing in pretty much every respect. You’re using less runway and you’ve got better engine-out performance, all at more docile speeds.

Also you’ll have a more robust rate of climb, at a steeper “deck angle,” as pilots call it — maybe upwards of 20 degrees. I was riding on a mostly empty regional jet out of JFK the other day, and we took off like a rocket. It felt like we hit 5,000 feet within about sixty seconds.

On landing, unusually slow touchdown speeds can throw off a pilot’s perspective. The dynamics of how, exactly, will vary plane to plane and situation to situation. I recently flew an empty Boeing 757 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Our Vref speed over the numbers was a ridiculous 108 knots, versus the 130 or so that is customary. The sense of “hovering” messed with my flare and the touchdown was, um, lumpier than I’d have preferred. (Strong headwinds can have this same effect: although your airspeed is normal, velocity relative to the ground can be 20 knots or more slower.)

In between, during cruise flight, differences are negligible or unnoticeable. You’ll be able to reach a higher cruising level more quickly, and you’ll consume less fuel, but otherwise there are no real changes in how the plane feels or behaves.

Q: How has the COVID-19 impacted your daily life and work schedule?

How do you even begin to measure this? Thousands of aircraft are grounded and 80 percent of flights, give or take, remain canceled. Any comparisons to 9/11 are beyond hackneyed. There are no comparisons. Nothing like this has happened before, and nothing about it has been pleasant.

I’ve been flying a lot of late, but only because my seniority allows it, and because of the fleet I’m assigned to. Many pilots have been idle for 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 so-called “airline bailout,” a.k.a. the CARES Act, was primarily a cover for salaries; it has not kept the airlines from hemorrhaging tens of millions of dollars daily. Salaries make up a significant fraction of an airline’s expenses, that’s true, but it’s still a fraction. The largest carriers continue to lose nearly $1 billion per month, each. All airline workers are pay-protected through the end of the summer. Beyond that, who knows. Industry consolidation, bankruptcies, liquidations, pay cuts, massive layoffs… we are likely to see all of those things.

I’ve been flying commercially since 1990. Most of the early jobs I had were marked by terrible pay and hostile working conditions, and I spent almost six years out of work after 9/11. I was into my forties before I ever made a decent living and had a lifestyle that I could enjoy. The thought of possibly losing it all is terrifying.

I guess this was one way of solving the pilot shortage.

Q: When you’re flying significantly less than usual, what steps must be taken to ensure your licence stays valid?

A pilot’s license never expires. What does expire, however, is his or her currency — i.e. “recency of experience,” as the F.A.A. puts it. To keep current in my aircraft type, I need two things. The first is to pass a semi-annual training evaluation. This is a two-day course that we repeat every nine months, usually referred to as “recurrent training.” In addition, we need to log a minimum of three takeoffs and landings every 90 days. If you drop put of currency, the airline has to run you through the simulator to bring it back again.

Takeoff and landing recency is a common issue for pilots who fly predominantly long-haul, and carriers will normally get you into the simulator ahead of time so that you don’t become unusable. Suddenly, however, amidst the COVID panic, it’s an issue for almost every pilot, and airlines are yet to figure out the most efficient way of dealing with it. To help, the F.A.A. has granted an extension of up to 60 days for takeoff and landing recency — though some airlines have voluntarily limited it to 30 days.

When I was laid off in 2001, I went more than five years without touching the controls of an aircraft. When I was recalled in 2007, that extended downtime made retraining a little more stressful than it would otherwise have been. Overall, though, it went smoothly, which is either a testament to my own skills or to my carrier’s training program. You decide. My return to the cockpit was detailed in a column here.

So much of flying is muscle memory — internalizing the location and operation of the various switches, prompts, buttons and levers — and the longer you’ve been flying a specific model, the stronger your retention. On my last assignment, finally in first officer’s seat again after a multi-week absence, I was surprised more by how quickly it all came back. So it goes, I guess, when you’ve been flying a 757 for 13 years.


Have a question? Leave it in the comments section below, or email the author at patricksmith@askthepilot.com

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15 Responses to “Q&A With the Pilot, Coronavirus Edition”
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  1. Roy says:

    My question is: If there is one or more people infected on an airliner, and knowing that infection particles may last 24 hours or more might this jet be seeding infection along their various routes as cabin air is expelled?.

  2. I wanted to bring aloe vera plants in a plastic zip glad bag in my caery on is this allowable? My flight leaves today at 6:55 pm

  3. Angela says:

    I’m surprised no question about safety measures. Would you recommend flying right now?
    If passengers take appropriate measures is it relatively safe?

  4. Tod says:


    What do you make of the revelation that about 150 pilots in Pakistan could be flying with fraudulently obtained licences?

  5. Michael Spencer says:

    Patrick: I have two questions.

    First: What can be said about hundreds and hundreds of MAX airplanes? Yes, they are receiving care; but is there a point when writing off the asset starts to make sense? There just doesn’t seem to be any urgency (COVID aside).

    Second: The industry financial situation is greeted by many like this: “it couldn’t have happened to a better bunch of companies”. It’s easy to understand this attitude, which I’ve heard many times. After all, the companies did bank huge profits recently, while they squeezed passengers and charged endless fees. Pointing out that airline fares are, when adjusted for inflation, mostly reasonable carries no weight. And why should it when paying $30 to throw a bag in the overhead? Moreover, many point out that the carriers were poorly managed: there’s been no obvious preparation, for instance, for a sharp downturn, preparation that could have happened during profitable years.

    Anyway, that’s the sort of argument or comment that I hear among friends and colleagues. Is it fair? Not entirely. But there are some points that are on track.

    I want to know your view.

  6. chandelle says:

    Mate, for completeness, you should’ve mentioned in the answer to Q1 that the low percentages keep increasing until they’re quite considerable by the time you touch down. And that 108 kt too could’ve actually been 88 kt without ill-effects, considering the 23% or so that’s built into Vref vis-a-vis Vs 🙂

  7. Gene says:

    “and the touchdown was, um, lumpier than I’d have preferred.”

    Thanks for the laugh, Patrick! I’ve made a few lumpy landings myself.

  8. Peter F says:

    Patrick – Idle curiosity re “…slower takeoff and landing speeds….your liftoff speed (Vr) could be 20 or more knots below normal”: is it possible, in the case of a very lightly loaded plane taking off from a very long runway, for the go/no-go decision speed (V1), above which you can no longer stop on the remaining runway, to be higher than Vr or even takeoff safety speed (V2)?

    Here’s hoping you stay employed and aloft!

  9. Bruce says:

    Thanks – that’s an interesting piece. I had wondered what it would be like flying a plane that’s lighter.

    I hope you do get your flight this weekend. Good luck!

  10. M chafer says:

    Federal bailout for Orlando FL airports: $170M.

    Start planning your Disney vacation when they announce their opening. (probably July)

  11. Ma Zhenguo says:

    What did you do for a living in the (almost) six years between 2001 and 2007 when you were not flying?

  12. Ma Zhenguo says:

    “In addition, we need to log a minimum of three takeoffs and landings every 90 days.” – You mean 30 days, right?

  13. Vinnie Prim says:

    I put it on Facebook too, as a fellow 757 enthusiast, I just read om Airline Weekly:

    “Since Boeing delivered its final passenger 767 in 2014, the model has enjoyed a rebirth as a cargo workhorse and needs modifying to meet 2028 emissions standards. One insider said the 767 study focused on the plane’s role as a freighter, while others saw a possible passenger role.


    A 757 replacement would counter strong sales of the Airbus A321 and allow Boeing to pioneer systems needed in future replacements of all small and medium jets – notably cockpits. Boeing stopped making the roughly 240-seat 757 in 2004. Any replacement would have slightly more range and seats, with one source nicknaming it “757-Plus”.”

    Maybe there finally will be a rebirth of the 757 instead of a 797

    Regards, Vinnie P

  14. Simon says:

    Here’s wishing you all the best, Patrick. May you be called in to fly more often.

    I’m still anxiously awaiting the day when after I board I get to hear ‘First Officer Patrick Smith and his crew…”. I’ll be the guy cheering. 🙂

  15. Keith says:

    In an environment like today’s, where you’re flying significantly less than usual, what steps are you (or your employers) taking to ensure your licence stays current (appropriate number of takeoffs, landings, flight hours, etc., over time)?
    When you were previously unemployed after 9/11, how did you manage keeping your licence current personally?