The Mad, Mad Summer of 2022

June 27, 2022

IF YOU’VE been to the airport lately, you’ve experienced the mayhem. Terminals are swamped, planes are overbooked, cancellations are rampant, delays are out of control.

I’ve been working quite a bit over the last few months, so I’ve been in the thick of it. “Travel is back,” I wrote in a post back in May. “I wasn’t sure we’d get here, so count me among those who are happy to see a little chaos again at the airport.” I meant what I said, but things have rapidly reached a breaking point. How bad is it, exactly? It’s tough to quantify in terms of statistics, but suffice it to say that in 30 years of commercial flying, I’ve never seen anything like this.

The gist of the problem is staffing. The media keeps talking about a pilot shortage, and certainly that’s a factor, but the crisis extends across the entire industry: at the airlines and their various contractors, at air traffic control, security, airport retail, and so on.


Yes, it mostly goes back to how things were handled at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when thousands of employees were shed, and a failure to adequately re-staff as things swung back to normal. On the surface, the airlines and their partners look pretty stupid, but perhaps it’s not that simple. Remember the environment at the height of COVOD-19 downturn. The industry had never faced anything like it, and was desperate to stay alive. There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return. Travel restrictions and border closings changed week to week, and absolutely nothing was certain. Almost nobody predicted a return to 2019 numbers so soon. The expectation, so much as there was one, was of a gradual, incremental return over a period of years.

Air travel logistics are challenging enough in normal times, never mind when the entire world has flipped upside-down. When it came to aligning their fleets and staffing, they did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others. And that’s what it was to a big degree: guesswork.

And so here we are. And it’s not just the United States. Security and check-in lines at some European airports are three or more hours long. I was flying out of Dublin the other day, and the lines for U.S. immigration preclearance snaked all the way to the second floor. Amsterdam-Schiphol has enacted flight restrictions, and a luggage system meltdown at London-Heathrow left passengers without their bags for several days.

As to that pilot shortage we keep hearing about, there are, in fact, two shortages, the effects of which are overlapping. One is short-term and pandemic-related, per above. The second is more systemic and longer term.

Carriers are now taking on hundreds of new-hire pilots every month. This, combined with the lingering effects of the pandemic reshuffling, finds training departments overwhelmed, with long backlogs for classroom time, simulator slots, line certification flights, etc. Pilot training is modular, and it does not happen quickly. New-hire training can take several weeks, as can moving from one aircraft type to another, or upgrading from first officer to captain. Many pilots are sitting at home, waiting their turn. Thus, it’s less a dearth of pilots than a training system overload.

Then we have the other, more systemic shortage. As I talked about in this older article, this is a significantly bigger problem at the regional carrier level than at the majors. All of the legacy airlines are currently hiring, and although they’re having no trouble filling their slots, those pilots have to come from somewhere. This is causing a ripple effect downward through the industry. The regional sector has all but reinvented itself in a plea for new-hires, offering salary and benefits packages heretofore unheard of for entry-level airline pilots.

For decades, the salaries and working conditions at regional carriers were laughably substandard. In many cases pilots were asked to foot their own training costs, only to earn poverty level wages in return. And as the regional sector expanded, taking over more and more mainline flying, a job at a regional often meant an entire career at a regional. This led to fewer and fewer pilots getting into the business, helping create the shortage we have today. These companies now have little choice but to significantly improve pay scales and benefits, both to entice new-hire pilots and to retain the ones they already have. You could say they had it coming; there never needed to be a shortage in the first place.


Overall passenger numbers are still off about 15 percent from 2019. The problem is, the 85 percent who are back are being crammed into an infrastructure that can’t handle them.

What nobody is talking about, meanwhile, is the issue of airspace and runway saturation. It was bad enough pre-pandemic. Now, several upstart carriers are pumping even more airplanes into a system at or beyond maximum capacity. It’s especially bad in the eastern half of the U.S. Things run fairly smoothly when the weather is good, but the minute a storm develops, blocking off air routes, the delays and cancellations start to cascade.

Even on clear-weather days, the taxiway queues at airports like Newark or La Guardia can be hours long. Airlines need to better rationalize their schedules and, in many markets, consolidate departures to help reduce congestion. To this end, the short-haul widebody jet is a concept whose time has maybe returned.

When will the madness end? Will it end? I keep my fingers crossed that we’re not being set up for a sort of new normal in which chaos is taken for granted. I worry, because as we’ve seen with airport security over the past two decades, the traveling public has a remarkable and discouraging ability to adapt to almost anything, no matter how absurd or inconvenient.

Let’s hope, instead, the crisis is temporary. I suspect things will improve as demand dies down after Labor Day. In the meantime, if you bring one thing to the airport this summer, have it be this: patience.

 

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Unmasked

April 19, 2022

IF YOU’RE headed to the airport today, you can leave your face covering at home.

Yesterday, a Federal judge struck down the Biden Administration’s extension of the TSA-enforced mask mandate for airports, airplanes, and public transit. By late afternoon, the White House basically threw in the towel, announcing that TSA would no longer enforce the rule. Already extended on two prior occasions, the mandate was set to expire in under three weeks. Apparently this wasn’t a fight worth taking on.

Within hours, the country’s airlines began informing passengers and employees that, effective immediately, masks are now optional.

The new policy will affect U.S. domestic flights and airports. Protocols on international flights will vary with the destination country.

Here’s hoping the pre-departure testing requirement for passengers returning to the United States is next to be eliminated.

Regardless of where I fall on the matter, what I fear is that the to-mask-or-not-to-mask question becomes a kind of binary political litmus: if you’re politically on the left, you’ll continue wearing a mask. If you’re a Trumper or politically to the right, you won’t. Ideological affiliations will thus be judged instantly, based on appearance.

This kind of non-thinking is bothersome and very unfair, but this is the nation we’re living in these days — and another of the reasons I’ve come to feel so politically homeless of late.

And that’s about all I wish to say. If readers feel like arguing the good and bad, have at it in the comments section.

It’ll be interesting to see this how this plays out. I imagine the percentage of people sticking with masks will, at first, remain quite high. I was at the Dublin airport a couple of weeks ago, where the policy has been optional for a while, and it was about 50/50. Will you wear a mask still? Why or why not? And talk us through the different scenarios. What if, for example, you prefer to be masked but find yourself seated in a row of unmasked flyers. Etc.

One thing that hopefully goes away forever are the mask selfies on Instagram posted by pilots and flight attendants. If, like me, you’re a fan of the various commercial aviation photostreams, you’ve seen them: picture after picture of airline workers cheerfully mugging in face masks. This seems wrong to me, and often smells sanctimonious.

And why do I get the feeling that most of these photos would never exist in the first place if not for the masks? Somehow the mask seems to be the entire point, which makes it all the more frustrating.

Yes, until now, everyone who flew needed to put a mask on. This was understood and accepted, as was any airline’s attempt to make the policy clear through advertising, promotional materials, on-board safety videos, and so forth. What’s driven me crazy, however, have been the constant attempts to cute-ify the wearing of masks. Because, in fact, there’s nothing cute about them. Masks are physical symptom of a society in pretty serious distress. This isn’t something to giggle at, normalize, or make light of.

 

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COVID Testing Made Easy.

OCTOBER 26, 2021

FOR AMERICANS returning home from abroad, few things are more of a hassle than the requirement to get a COVID test. The government mandates that returning citizens be tested within three days of their flight, regardless of which country they’re coming from. Airlines will not let you board without proof of a negative result.

There was talk of eliminating this requirement as of November 8th — the date when foreign citizens will again be granted entry to the U.S. But in fact the rule is getting tougher: if you’re an unvaccinated American, you will now need a test within one day instead of three.

Tracking down a testing location in a foreign country can be challenging. They often aren’t available where you’d most expect them to be: at the airport. Even when they are, hurrying to the airport for a last-minute test hours before departure can be stressful. Before coming home from Dubai not long ago, my friend and I spent half a day traipsing around the city in a taxi. The hotel had given us directions to a facility that turned out to be closed, forcing us to hunt down a different one. Once we found it, the lines were long and the forms and document checks took forever to complete. Then, it took almost 24 hours to receive our results, instead of the promised twelve hours. A little nerve-wracking when you’re flight is leaving the next day.

Traveling back from Colombia a few weeks ago, however, was a whole different experience, thanks to something I didn’t know existed until just prior to leaving home: a CDC and FDA-approved self-testing kit that you carry with you on your trip. You take the test when you need to, and the results are certified through video call supervision.

Initially, CDC stipulations required that a traveler’s COVID test be administered in a laboratory. That changed as of last May, when the approval was given for self-tests that meet certain criteria. At least three companies are now providing this service, selling under the brands BinaxNOW, Ellume, and Qured.

The one I used was Qured. I don’t typically go the route of shameless product plugs, but this time I can’t resist. I can’t say enough about how affordable and convenient this service was.

Author’s photo

It works like this:

First, you order the Qured kit prior to your trip. It costs about $50. It’s a small box containing two do-it-yourself tests and instructions. You then create an account and schedule a video consultation to take place prior to your flight home (within that three-day return window). Throw the kit into your carry-on bag and take it with you.

When the time comes, you assemble your kit and dial in to a video chat. A Qured representative then talks you through the test — it’s a simple nasal swab, which you then place in a tube of solution along with a paper strip — and explains how to photograph and submit the results via email. A short while later you receive a confirmation document, which you’ll show to the airline prior to boarding.

That’s it. The test can be completed in the privacy of your hotel room and takes no more than ten minutes. All you need is WiFi and a phone. I had my email confirmation less than fifteen minutes after the call.

Consumer reviews of BinaxNOW have mentioned long wait times and lack of video call availability, and Ellume was forced to recall a number of kits due to a high number of false positives. Presumably these issues will be ironed out; in the meantime, I had no such problems with Qured. There were slots open pretty much around the clock, and I was able to begin the consultation a few minutes earlier than was scheduled.

It’s really that easy.

Wisely, airlines have begun partnering with these providers, allowing you to order when booking your flight reservations. Check with your carrier to see what’s available. The only potential sticking point is that not all countries allow the importation of medical test kits. CDC advises travelers to “contact authorities at their destination.”

Regardless of what you think of the thee-day test rule, we’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future. Fortunately there’s now an alternative to the hassle of trudging to a clinic or testing center. It’s fast, ultra-convenient, and actually less expensive than what many labs will charge. Frankly, I can’t understand why any traveler wouldn’t take advantage of this.

 

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The Day of the Cockroach

corridor-shot-1994

 

September 11, 2021

MY MOST VIVID MEMORY of September 11th, 2001, is my memory of a cockroach.

It was one of the biggest roaches I’ve ever seen — copper-colored and bullet-shaped, the length of my little finger — and it came crawling across the platform of the Government Center subway station at 7:00 a.m., as I stood there waiting for the train that would take me to Logan Airport. It scampered, stopped, then zigged and zagged, in that deliberate yet utterly directionless way of insects, its footsteps so heavy I swear that I could hear them, click-click-click on the greasy concrete.

It portended everything, this giant subway cockroach. Or it portended nothing. And as it came closer I drew my foot back — my right foot, I remember with absolute clarity — and nudged it, gently, off the platform and down into the dark and filthy space alongside the tracks, where it disappeared more or less instantly into the shadows and detritus.

This is how we remember things.

Once on the train, I would chat briefly with a United Airlines flight attendant, whose name I never got, and who maybe, possibly — I’ll never know for certain — was headed to work aboard the doomed United flight 175.

I was on my way to Orlando, where I’d be picking up a work assignment later that afternoon. My airplane would lift off only seconds after American’s flight 11, the first of the two jets to hit the twin towers. I had watched the silver Boeing back away from gate 25 at Logan’s terminal B and begin to taxi. United 175 would launch a few minutes later. My plane was in-between.

In an old briefcase here in this room, I still have my boarding pass from that morning. It shows me assigned to seat 11D, on the aisle, but there were empty seats and I slid over the window.

Elevens were wild that day. On the 11th day of the month, flight 11 would collide with the World Trade Center, two buildings that shaped an enormous “11” in the Manhattan sky. I looked down from row 11.

But there was nothing to see, yet. I recall an almost uncannily clear view of Manhattan, taking note, as I always do, of that graceful little bend that the island makes — the way it turns eastbound just below Midtown. There was no smoke, no fire. I was just a few minutes — a matter of seconds, maybe — too soon.

A short time later, about halfway to Florida, we started descending. Because of a “security issue,” our captain told us, we, along with many other airplanes, would be diverting immediately. Pilots are polished pros when it comes to dishing out euphemisms, and this little gem would be the most laughable understatement I’ve ever heard a comrade utter.

Our new destination was Charleston, South Carolina.

A bomb threat had been called in. That was my hunch. My worry wasn’t of war and smoldering devastation. My worry was being late for work. It wasn’t until I joined a crowd of passengers in Charleston, clustered around a TV in a concourse restaurant, that I learned what was going on.

And there I am. I’m watching the video of the second airplane, shot from the ground in a kind of twenty-first century Zapruder film. The picture swings left and picks up the United 767 moving swiftly. This is flight 175. The plane rocks, lifts its nose, and, like a charging, very angry bull making a run at a fear-frozen matador, drives itself into the very center of the south tower. The airplane vanishes. For a fraction of a second there is no falling debris, no smoke, no fire, no movement. Then, from within, you see the white-hot explosion and spewing expulsion of fire and matter.

And then, a bit later, the collapse. And this is the important part. Because to me, had the airplanes crashed, blown up, and reduced the upper halves of those buildings to burned-out hulks, the whole event would nonetheless have clung to the realm of believability. Had the towers not actually fallen, I suspect our September 11 hangover, which rages to this day, might not have been so prolonged. It was the collapse — the groaning implosions and the pyroclastic tornadoes whipping through the canyons of lower Manhattan — that catapulted the event from ordinary disaster to historical infamy.

As I stand awestruck in this shithole airport restaurant in South Carolina, the television shows the towers of the World Trade Center. They are not just afire, not just shedding debris and pouring out oil-black smoke. They are falling down. The sight of those ugly, magnificent towers, collapsing onto themselves, is the most sublimely terrifying thing I have ever seen.

Then I would go to a motel and spend the night. The next morning I would rent a car and drive all the way home to Boston.

This is how we remember things.

And pilots, like fire fighters, police officers, and everyone elsewhose professions had been implicated, had no choice but to take things, well, personally. Four on-duty airline crews were victims, including eight pilots. John Ogonowski comes to mind, the good-guy captain of American 11. Of the thousands of people victimized that day, Captain Ogonowski was figuratively, if not literally, the first of them. He lived in my home state; his funeral made the front pages, where he was eulogized for his philanthropic work with local Cambodian immigrants.

Maybe it’s melodramatic to say I felt a bond or kinship with these eight men, but it’s something like that. What they went through, these eight colleagues on the very front edge of the attacks, the very men whose airplanes would be stolen and weaponized, is something I can’t fathom yet, at the same time, I can imagine and visualize all too chillingly.

And yes, in the ten-second bursts it took the towers to fall, I knew something about the business of flying planes would be different forever. I just wasn’t sure what it would be.

Fast-forward. It’s hyperbole to speak of the world having been “changed forever” that day. I’m conservative and skeptical when it comes to these things. History is bigger than us. Try to take the long view, even if, all these years on, the dominos haven’t stopped falling. Heck, tens of millions of people died in World War Two — tens of thousands at a time, as the incendiaries rained down over Europe and Japan. A hundred thousand bodies one night in Tokyo alone.

Sure, things are different now. Albeit for reasons we don’t always own up to. I have to say, I’m discouraged — or should that be encouraged? — because more than any “clash of civilizations,” the real and lasting legacy of Mohamed Atta and his henchmen is something more mundane: tedium. Think about it. The long lines, the searches and pat-downs, the litany of rules and protocols we’re forced to follow — all this meaningless pomp in the name of security. Of modern life’s many rituals, few are marinated in boredom as much as air travel. “Flying” is what we call it. How misleading. We don’t fly so much as we sit and stand around for interminable amounts of time.

And most distressing of all, we seem to be okay with this. There’s the real legacy of September 11th. The terrorists have won, goes the refrain, and perhaps that’s true. It isn’t quite what they hoped to win, but they’ve won it nevertheless.

The irony that nobody talks about is that the hijackers’ ability to pull off the 2001 attacks so spectacularly had almost nothing to do with airport security in the first damn place. I’ve made this point many times, but never have I seen or heard it acknowledged elsewhere. As conventional wisdom has it, the terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling boxcutters onto the airplanes. But conventional wisdom is wrong. What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset — a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings and how they were expected to unfold: diversions to Beirut or Havana, with hostage negotiations and standoffs.

The presence of boxcutters was merely incidental — particularly when coupled with the bluff of having a bomb. The men could have used knives fashioned from plastic, broken bottles wrapped with tape, or any of a thousand other improvised tools. The only weapon that mattered was the intangible one: the element of surprise. And so long as they didn’t chicken out, they were all but guaranteed to succeed.

For a number of reasons, just the opposite is true today. The hijack paradigm was changed forever even before the first of the Twin Towers had dropped to the ground, when the passengers of United 93 realized what was happening and fought back. That element of surprise was no longer a useful device. Hijackers today would face not only an armored cockpit, but also a planeload of people convinced they’re about to die. It’s hard to imagine a terrorist, be it with a boxcutter or a bomb, making it two steps up the aisle without being pummeled. It’s equally hard to imagine that organized groups would be willing to expend valuable resources on a scheme with such a high likelihood of failure.

In spite of this reality, we are apparently content spending billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened and cannot happen again. Guards paw through our luggage in a hunt for what are effectively harmless items: hobby knives, scissors, screwdrivers. Meanwhile, even a child knows that a lethal implement can be crafted out of virtually anything, from a ballpoint pen to a shattered first class dinner plate.

A September 11th post isn’t anything I’ve looked forward to, and I’m wary of the maudlin sentimentalizing and over-the-top coverage this anniversary will bring. But something needed to be said, and so here it is. After all, nothing in my lifetime had a more profound effect on air travel than the events of that Tuesday morning twenty years ago.

Until now. Until COVID-19 came along. And as the legacy of September 11th troubles me, so do its eerie parallels with the ongoing battle against coronavirus.

Both crises were born of legitimately dangerous circumstances, but quickly became twisted by politics and hysteria. Curiously, this seems to have happened in opposite ways: After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right advocate for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Why the difference? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, seeking revenge, etc. — all the things that came into play after September 11th. The pandemic, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of where you stand, the big question is: how and when does it end? Or does it end at all?

When people are afraid they adjust rapidly, to almost anything, accepting ways of life that are ultimately harmful. Replace “war on terror” with “war on coronavirus” and feel what I mean. After 2001, we spent two entire decades — and counting — obsessed with the specter of terrorism. It never went away. Will the same thing happen again?

There’s been a lot of talk and prognosticating about “after.” People often talk of a life “after COVID” or “when COVID is over.” This is a nonsensical proposition. Just as there can be no “end of terrorism,” the virus too will stay with us, chronic and endemic. How we adapt will define the next decade. Will we do so sensibly, or, as we chose with terrorism, by waging a ruinously expensive and self-destructive battle that, to this day, has no conceivable end.

 

Author’s photo, taken from the cockpit of a 19-seater in 1994.

An earlier version of this essay appears in chapter six of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL.

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COVID Casualties

Predictions, Observations, and Farewells Amidst Coronavirus.

What will air travel look like post-COVID? It’s still too soon to know. There are many moving parts to this. It’s happening globally, at different speeds, across a diverse range of cultures and economies and market environments. Things will be in flux for a long time, with no defined end. 

Much has already happened, however, and there are signs and signals as to what may lay ahead. Airlines have fallen, trends are emerging, protocols are being set. Below is a look at what we’ve seen, and some thoughts on what comes next, both for airlines and their customers.

This post will be updated periodically as events occur, and as the author’s aggravation levels rise and fall.

 

September 1, 2021. Mask Mania.

If, like me, you’re a fan of the commercial aviation streams on Instagram, you’ve seen them: photo after photo after photo of airline workers cheerfully mugging in face masks. I’ve had it with this.

Yes, everyone who flies needs to put a mask on. This is understood and accepted, as is any airline’s attempt to make the policy clear through advertising, promotional materials, on-board safety videos, and so forth. In other words, treat it seriously. What drives me crazy are the constant attempts to cute-ify the wearing of masks. Because, in fact, there’s nothing cute about it. Masks are a physical symptom of a society, and an airline industry, in pretty serious distress. This isn’t something to giggle at, normalize, or make light of, and we should want them to go away as soon as possible (ironically, by wearing them when and where it makes sense to).

It’s not just aviation galleries. The entire internet is awash in mask selfies. These pictures seem wrong to me, and often feel sanctimonious. Posting a photo with a mask on is a little like posting a photo with a bag over your head. Why do it unless, for some reason of policy or regulation, you have to? Nine times in ten there appears to be no reason the person couldn’t have slipped the damn thing off for the sake of a picture — especially in shots taken outdoors.

Or is that the whole point? If so, it’s not a helpful one. Turning masks into political statements or fetish objects doesn’t keep anyone safer or halt the spread of coronavirus.

 

August 19, 2021. Covering Up.

Earlier this week, TSA announced an extension of its passenger mask mandate. Flyers will now be required to wear approved face masks aboard all U.S. commercial flights until at least January 18th, 2022. Considering current case rates and the high transmissibility of the COVID-19 delta variant, this was neither unexpected nor unreasonable. And so my reaction is little more than a shrug.

The extension is unlikely to affect passenger volumes in any measurable way. Love them or hate them, masks are simply not a part of most travelers’ go/no-go criteria. They do, however, add to the levels of aggravation and frustration in the cabin, and the big issue for airlines now is how the ruling might affect levels of so-called air rage. Instances of passenger violence and belligerent behavior have risen sharply, and masks are a part of that.

I have no big issue with masks on planes in a general sense. One thing I wish, however, is that carriers weren’t so blindly aggressive in their enforcement. I’ve seen flight attendants literally scream at passengers because their masks momentarily slipped beneath their noses. Stepping onto a jetliner, the first words you hear are no longer “hello,” or “welcome aboard,” but a stern, “Sir, your mask needs to be all the way over your nose!” A few days ago I witnessed a flight attendant interrupt and berate a customer because he dared to partially remove his mask in order to ask a question about a connecting flight. (If he can remove his mask to enjoy a meal, why can’t he remove it for two seconds to ask a question?) To say nothing of the endless barrage of mask-related public address announcements that begin well before boarding and don’t end until you’re at baggage claim five hours later.

This sort of combative, absolute zero-tolerance approach is not in the spirit of the rule, and does nothing to keep people safer. All it does is create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in a setting where tension levels already are high.

 

May 19, 2021. Thresholds.

Daily passenger volume in the U.S. is now about 70 percent of 2019 levels. Airlines are reporting positive cash flow, if not quite profit, and many flights are full. Passenger confidence is returning and there’s the smell of normal in the air.

Of course, a full flight isn’t necessarily a profitable one. It’s easy to fill a plane with cheap tickets, and it’s low-yield leisure traffic that, for the moment, is driving the recovery. Business traffic is what airlines count on, and here any improvement has been agonizingly slow to materialize. It will come, eventually; not to the levels we saw before, but enough to return airlines to the black. Another asterisk is geography. Southern and middle-of-the-country airports are bustling, while places like Boston and San Francisco lag behind. The differences are driven by local economies, culture, even politics. Regardless, almost all of the signs are positive, at least for domestic markets.

The international front, on the other hand, remains a mess. With vaccinations sporadic or even nonexistent in many countries, COVID cases are increasing across much of the world, resulting in paralyzed economies, lockdowns and border closures. Just as worryingly, even “open” countries pose a challenge. What’s lacking is any sort of consistency in entry protocols. Some countries ask only for a vaccination certificate. Others require a vaccination certificate and a so-called PCR test (which can be time-consuming and expensive to get). Others ask for a certificate and the easier kind of COVID test. Others want only one (or both) of these tests, and don’t care about your vax status. Some mandate quarantines on top (or instead) of all this, while others don’t. And so on. The rules are a tangle and constantly being revised.

Just this week the European Union announced a proposal to begin allowing in travelers from select countries, including the United States, without testing or quarantine — just a vaccination. While this is potentially great news, when it might actually happen is unclear. For the time being, they’re not making it easy. To enter Italy, just as one example, a passenger must first pass a PCR test within 72 hours of departure time. He or she must then take a second test at the airport. In case that’s not enough, the passenger is then required to take a third test on arrival in Italy. Three tests, not counting the one you need to return to the United States. No exclusions for vaccination status.

Travelers are not gonna book holidays or business trips when the requirements are this onerous or subject to change on short notice. The world needs groups like IATA, A4A, and USTA to press for more streamlined and standardized procedures.


January 22, 2021. Nowhere Fast.

Newly sworn in, President Joe Biden is unveiling a flurry of policy initiative to stem the spread of you-known-what. Among these is a rule that incoming international passengers must self-quarantine for ten days. This comes only days after a requirement that arriving passengers present a negative COVID-19 test result prior boarding any flight to the United States. There’s no provision for taking a second test after arrival in lieu of quarantine, neither is there an exception for passengers who are vaccinated. Whatever impact these measures may or may not have on COVID-19 cases, they’ll certainly be devastating for airlines and their workers, and will all but crush the small amount of international travel that has begun to rebound — most of it in the Latin America and Caribbean markets.

The U.S. Travel Association lauded the testing requirement, describing it as “the key to reopening international travel.” However, the group is understandably less enthusiastic about the quarantine. “We believe a mandatory quarantine requirement for international travelers could be extremely difficult to enforce—and unnecessary,” the organization said in a press release, “in light of required testing and the many other protections now in place.”

Everything is just a disaster.

 

January 14, 2021. Norwegian Would.

All right, where were we? It’s been a while. Which is maybe understandable, since so little has changed. Or, maybe more accurately, everything and nothing has changed.

This week, discount carrier Norwegian Air announced that it’s giving up its long-haul network. The airline will downsize from 140 planes to about 50, all of them short-haul Boeing 737s, sending its fleet of more than thirty 787s back to the lessors. The carrier will “return to its routes,” so to speak, focusing on low-cost intra-European flying.

This is no surprise. Norwegian never made money on its long-haul services. The long-haul LCC (low-cost carrier) model is exceptionally challenging under even the best of circumstances, never mind in the middle of a crushing global crisis. Once COVID hit, Norwegian never stood a chance.

History — both recent and distant — is littered with the carcasses of LCCs that tried and failed to make it in transoceanic markets. Laker, Tower Air, AirAsia X, WOW, Joon. And now Norwegian. The track record is a dismal one, yet it always seems like someone is willing to try. Indeed, as we speak, Lufthansa is looking into launching a long-haul LCC tentatively named “Ocean.”

 

October 15, 2020. Bordering on Madness.

The recovery, if we can call it that, has been handicapped by the recent spike in COVID-19 cases — and, in no small part, by a media that will not cease its fear-mongering. Yet the numbers are improving, little by little. In the U.S., daily passenger totals are closing in on the one million mark. Looking long term, it’s no longer the domestic front that worries me. Even with a shattered economy and a frightened populace, a return to normalcy is possible within a year or two. What scares me to death, however, is what’s going on internationally.

Across the world, borders remain closed or heavily restricted, with absurdly onerous entry requirements. Countries with few or no coronavirus cases remain closed off even to other countries with few or no cases. And those letting visitors in typically require expensive and logistically complicated “PCR” testing prior to arrival. That’s in addition to secondary testing after landing and, in some cases, a lengthy quarantine. It defies logic, but not having COVID-19 is no longer an adequate criteria to visit many countries. To enter Thailand, for instance, a traveler has to undergo three COVID-19 tests and quarantine for two weeks, after which point you are permitted to stay only in government-monitored hotels, with your whereabouts tracked daily. This in a nation that earns 20 percent of its annual GDP through tourism.

Why simple, on-the-spot instant testing hasn’t become an acceptable standard for entry I can’t understand. But it hasn’t. By and large there have been very few efforts toward developing a rational or reasonable means of reopening borders. Instead we have heavy-handed policies that make any return of tourism or business travel all but impossible, and will further decimate the many industries that support and rely on global travel. That includes airlines, more and more of whom are headed to the brink or beyond.

 

September 2, 2020. Boarding School.

TSA has been tracking the number of passenger boardings at U.S. airports. To the surprise of many, we’ve been seeing daily numbers in excess of 800,000. That’s close to 40 percent of what we saw a year ago on the same days.

On the one hand that’s a spectacular and encouraging statistic, especially with most states only partially reopened, and with an economy off the rails. But looking at it more closely leaves me less sanguine than many of my peers. What I see, rather than a sudden lurch to normalcy, is a limited number of people jumping to take advantage of low fares. Although 40 percent of passengers have returned, 40 percent of revenues have not. Cheap tickets to domestic vacation spots will help fill TSA lines, sure. But looking down the road — especially for the legacy carriers, which rely heavily on international and business traffic — this is hardly a recipe for success.

It’s a positive sign, don’t get me wrong, but the real test begins next week, after Labor Day, when summertime leisure flyers return to work (or to their Zoom meetings). Will boardings continue to rise, or will they plateau and taper off? This will also be the moment when the legacies need to begin separating themselves from their low-cost counterparts. And for that, they’ll need those high-yield business flyers to start coming back, and overseas markets to begin reopening. Until then, “40 percent of normal” doesn’t quite mean what it seems.

 

August 6, 2020. Branson’s Blues.

I wonder what the record is for the most number of airlines going bankrupt in a six-month span. The post-Deregulation period was pretty brutal, but that was spread over two or three years, from 1979 through 1982. The early 1990s were another dark time, with Eastern and Pan Am going under. Never, though, have we seen such carnage in such a brief amount of time.

Earlier this week, Virgin Atlantic became the latest victim of the COVID panic, filing for bankruptcy protection in both American and British courts. Virgin joins Thai, Avianca, LATAM, and several other major carriers (see earlier entries below) victimized by the collapse in global travel. Virgin was especially hard hit because a high percentage of its revenues comes from routes between London and the United States, all of which have been scaled back significantly or canceled outright. More than 3,000 employees have been laid off. Co-owner Richard Branson was angling for a bailout, and offered up his private Caribbean island as collateral. It wasn’t enough.

This is actually the second Virgin franchise to hit the skids. Virgin Australia Airlines, co-founded by Branson twenty years ago, filed for bankruptcy back in April.

 

July 19, 2020. Going Dutch.

I survived the curse of July 17th, and find myself in Amsterdam the following morning.

Subdued, is how I’d describe it here. On a normal midsummer weekend, for better or worse, the central part of Amsterdam would be a virtual wall of tourists. On a midsummer weekend in 2020, however, it’s predominantly locals. Looks more like February than July. But otherwise routine: shops and restaurants are open, people are milling freely. And almost nobody has a mask on. The only place I saw masks was at the airport, where it looked about 50/50.

Meanwhile in America.

 

July 16, 2020. The List Gets Smaller.

Less than two weeks after I wrote about Qantas’s early retirement of the 747 (see the installment below), British Airways has announced it too will cease all 747 flying, effective immediately. This will leave Lufthansa as the only 747 launch customer still operating the jet in scheduled service — assuming it doesn’t follow suit.

Every day brings more and more good news.

I flew in the upper deck of a British Airways 747 once, way back in 1987, from Heathrow to Nairobi. It was an old -200 model with the spiral staircase. Sitting upstairs in a 747 was always special — a private, hangar-shaped mini-cabin distinctly separate from the rest of the aircraft, with its own lavatories and galley. And who couldn’t love those sidewall storage lockers? You were three full stories above the ground, and the view through the windows gave you a sense of the 747’s size. Parked at the gate, you’d be looking over the rooftops of many terminals.

 

July 3, 2020. Decline and Fall.

A lot has been made about carriers — Emirates in particular — having mothballed their A380 fleets. What’s sadder is the worldwide grounding of the 747. Only a handful are currently in service, and regardless of how or when this all pans out, few will take to the air again. History’s most influential jetliner becomes just another casualty of the hideous global panic touched off by coronavirus. More than anything else in aviation, the 747 deserved a more dignified end.

Later this month, Qantas will say farewell to its last remaining 747. The sendoff will include a hangar commemoration for employees and a series of sold-out scenic flights. KLM’s retirement took place in April, more than a year ahead of schedule. That leaves British Airways and Lufthansa as the largest operators. Their fleets sit idle at the moment, and may or may not reenter service. Each of these carriers had a phase-out plan already in place, but COVID-19 has changed everything.

All four of these airlines were among the 747’s launch customers, and have (or had) operated the aircraft uninterrupted for nearly fifty years, beginning with the -100 variant in 1970.

For what it’s worth, I did spot an Air China 747-8 at Kennedy Airport the other day. There’s an irony in there somewhere.

 

July 1, 2020. Going South.

Let’s welcome Aeromexico to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy list. Established in 1934, the carrier operates an all-Boeing fleet of 60 aircraft.

Depressingly, if somewhat predictably, it’s the older and more historic airlines that are biting the dust faster than the newcomers and LCCs.

 

June 23, 2020. Political Masking.

After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right are advocating for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Both crises are similarly sinister in the way they they’ve warped people’s thinking and behavior, but they’ve attracted opposite crowds. Why? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, etc — all the things that came into play after 9/11. This particular crisis, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of the reasons, the more this becomes politicized into a left/right conflict, the longer it’s likely to drag on. Often unfairly, people are being put into two camps. Those in favor of harsh quarantines are Democrats. Those in favor of easing them and opening the economy are pro-Trump. This prejudice extends to the wearing of masks. I live in West Somerville, Massachusetts, one of the most progressive neighborhoods in America. Mask compliance is virtually 100 percent, whether indoors and outdoors. It’s common to see people wearing masks even in isolation, well apart from others: sitting alone in a park, in their yards, or on their porches. Anyone who shows up maskless is immediately pigeonholed as a Trump supporter, regardless of their actual affiliation. Masks aren’t merely a practical tool against the virus; they’re are also a signal and a symbol. The crisis has become a social movement, a cause, and political sentiment is absolutely part of it.

Politicizing COVID discourages people from thinking clearly or freely about what’s happening. Instead you’re assigned a “side” and expected to follow along. Never before has the nation needed to be more united around a cause, and instead we’re being wedged apart — on an issue that requires tough decision-making and bravery, not partisanship. Nonsense like this could postpone any meaningful recovery until after the election. For some, I imagine that’s the intent.

 

June 14, 2020. Creep.

Masks. Social distancing. Remember when taking off your shoes at airport security was just a “temporary” measure put in place after Richard Reid attempted to ignite his sneakers on a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001? Remember when the liquids and gels limits were a “temporary” restriction that came about after the London bomb plot in 2006? We have a habit of growing acclimated to even the most time-wasting inconveniences, long after they cease making sense. And rarely do the regulators or policy-makers enjoy undoing what they’ve done. It’s always a lot harder to rescind a rule than it was to put that rule in place.

Just saying.

 

May 26, 2020. Dominoes.

The newest addition to the 2020 bankruptcy flying circus is LATAM. Crippled by lockdowns and global quarantines, the carrier has filed for Chapter 11 protection. By far the largest airline in South America, LATAM traces its origins to the founding of LAN Chile in 1929. It was formed eight years ago when the LAN group, with operations mostly in Chile, Peru and Ecuador, joined forces with TAM of Brazil. The airline flies passenger and cargo services to 30 countries with a fleet of approximately 300 aircraft, including Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. LATAM is 20 percent owned by Delta Air Lines, with Qatar Airways controlling another ten percent.

 

May 19, 2020. Coast to Coast.

This past weekend I flew from New York to Los Angeles and back. The plane was about half full in both directions. That’s a hundred people, give or take, on a route that has been heavily consolidated (seven or eight daily flights reduced to one or two). It felt good to be back in the seat, though as happened last time I was left a little shaken by the spectacle of two of the world’s busiest airports almost utterly void of people.

The captain and I discussed books, travel, and airline history. I don’t think we mentioned coronavirus more than a couple of times. Like me he’s a bit of an airline trivia buff — a highly unusual trait among pilots, believe it or not — which provided some pleasant distraction.

If you haven’t flown in a while, brace yourself for a whole new onslaught of public address announcements. As if the PA cacophony wasn’t obnoxious and nerve-wracking enough before COVID; it’s been taken to the next level. Curbside to curbside, it’s blah blah blah masks, blah blah blah social distancing, blah blah blah aircraft cleaning, blah blah blah in accordance with the CDC, blah blah blah for the safety of crew and passengers. Boarding and deplaning are now longer and more complicated affairs, with every step of the way accompanied by some noisy and patronizing announcement.

I understand that passengers take comfort in an airline’s efforts to keep them safe. This is important. It’s also important not to scare them half to death or drive them crazy.

 

May 18, 2020. The Hits Keep Coming.

Colombia’s Avianca and Thai Airways are the latest major carriers to declare bankruptcy.

Avianca is the second-oldest airline in the world, and celebrated its 100th birthday this past December. Imagine making it through the Great Depression, World War II, and every other crisis to have come and gone over the last century, only to get knocked out by COVID in fewer than 90 days.

Thai, grounded since late March, dates to 1960 and operates a fleet of approximately 80 aircraft. The airline had been floundering for years until coronavirus broke its back.

Both companies hope to reorganize and resume flying. Thai is government-owned, giving it some hope, but could still go the way of South African (see below) if a bailout isn’t forthcoming.


May 8, 2020. That Didn’t Take Long.

Forty-eight hours, give or take. See my update below on temperature checks at airports. Just today Frontier Airlines became the first U.S. airline to require the infrared fever-screening of passengers. If your reading is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, you cannot travel.

It’s just a short matter of time before the other carriers follow suit, and at some point TSA (or a whole new agency) will take control of the operation, setting up checks at a centralized location at or near the security checkpoint. Just a “temporary measure,” of course. Sure.

And that’s the scary part. Twenty years after September 11th and we’re still doing liquid confiscations and taking our shoes off. Nobody can really explain why. Is it crazy to think that twenty years from now we’ll still be wearing masks and having our temperatures checked?

More lines to stand in, temperature scans, mandatory masks, no onboard service, higher fares, scared passengers… I’d say the airlines are just about screwed.

 

May 7, 2020. Normal Nothing.

If I hear the phrase “new normal” one more time, I’m going to need medication. I understand that certain measures are necessary and helpful under the circumstances. One thing they are not, however, and should never be, is normal. Nothing about this is normal. Yet there are elements of society, both cultural and political, that appear troublingly eager to make a lot of what we’re doing permanent.

Other terms and phrases that have worn out their welcome include “abundance of caution,” “Zoom,” and “front lines.” Did you know that supermarket cashiers are now called “Front line food distribution workers.”

 

May 6, 2020. Grounded.

Several readers have asked if I’ve been flying. The answer is yes and no. Mostly no. In mid-March I worked a four-day trip to Ghana. Since then, the only thing I’ve done was a simple domestic out-and-back one day about two weeks ago. I bid and received normal schedules for April and May, but every assignment was quickly canceled.

Like many pilots, I’m effectively being paid to sit home. I realize there are far worse fates, but almost nothing about it has been enjoyable. We’re protected through the end of the summer. After that, who knows. Best case is that I’m looking at a significant pay reduction in the fall. Worst case… I’d rather not talk about it. I spent almost six years out of work after 9/11. The thought of having to go through that again is too much.

To repeat something I brought up in an earlier post: What a lot of people don’t realize is that for pilots, should you find yourself laid off, or if your airline goes out of business, you cannot simply slide over to another airline and pick up where you 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 threat to our companies makes us nervous.

And for any near the bottom of any seniority list, disaster is coming. Thousands of those pilots are about to lose their jobs, possibly for years.

 

May 5, 2020. On the Horizon.

Whats that in my crystal ball? It’s masks. Several carriers now require passengers and crews to wear face coverings. Don’t be startled if regulators step in and make them mandatory. And whether it’s the law or not, they won’t be going away. Expect many passengers to keep wearing them long after the COVID crisis subsides.

And coming soon to a checkpoint near you: temperature checks. You often see these machines when passing through immigration at airports overseas. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing them in the U.S. as well, giving you the infrared once-over before you’re allowed to board. This is great news, because if passengers want anything, it’s another line to stand in.

Overseeing these new measures will be the Transportation Health Administration (THA), to be formed early next year by President Biden.

That last one is facetious. Right?

 

May 3, 2020. Let’s Catastrophize.

You know what would really suck right now for a U.S. carrier? An accident. A crash.

On our side is the fact that airlines have slashed their timetables more than 90 percent, vastly decreasing the likelihood of a disaster. Still, and much as I hate saying it, we’re overdue for one. There hasn’t been a major crash involving a mainline U.S. carrier in almost twenty years — by far the longest such streak in aviation history. Carriers are in dire straits as it is. A mishap could put one under. Airline workers are under a lot of stress right now. It’s important we keep our heads in the game.

 

April 26, 2020. Knockout Number Two: Virgin Australia.

Virgin Australia, the second-largest carrier Down Under, has gone into receivership. The company, co-founded by Richard Branson as Virgin Blue twenty years ago, operated close to a hundred aircraft to over 50 cities throughout Australia, Asia, and the United States. On April 20th the airline entered voluntary administration and filed for bankruptcy. Supposedly a couple of Chinese banks are eyeing VA’s assets with plans to resuscitate the brand, but details are unclear. For now, Virgin Australia becomes the second of what we might call “major” airlines to be punched out by the COVID panic. Others will follow.

 

April 10, 2020. Knockout Number One: South African Airways.

South African Airways has ceased operations after 86 years. The company had been struggling for some time, and in early April the South African government announced it would cut off any further assistance, forcing the airline close its doors and and lay off all remaining staff. This is a very depressing one. South African Airways was one of the world’s “classic” legacy carriers. In the 1970s and 1980s, its 707s, 747s, and 747SPs helped pioneer ultra long-haul flying (albeit during the apartheid years, when airspace bans often forced its planes to take circuitous routings). Its demise is no less sad than the fates that befell Swissair, Sabena, and some of the other great airlines. Gone too is the carrier’s legendary radio callsign: Springbok. Its “flying springbok” logo from 1971, pictured below, was one of the all-time best.

I flew South African Airways three times, aboard 747, 737, A330 and A320 aircraft, on routes between Johannesburg and New York, Windhoek, Lusaka and Victoria Falls.

There’s talk of a new national carrier emerging from the ashes. Chances are it’ll be given some awful-sounding name like “Sunjet.com,” a low-budget paint job and some goofy-sounding callsign.

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Hotel Room Madness

May 4, 2021

Mexico City, Mexico

HOUSEKEEPING: Good evening.

PATRICK SMITH: Hola. Can you help me? The door to my mini-fridge is locked.

HOUSEKEEPING: Yes, sir.

PATRICK SMITH: I need somewhere to store my leftovers. The fridge is locked.

HOUSEKEEPING: Yes, it is locked. For COVID-19.

PATRICK SMITH: What?

HOUSEKEEPING: The fridge is locked. Because of COVID.

PATRICK SMITH: I don’t understand. What does COVID have to do with my mini-fridge?

HOUSEKEEPING: I am sorry sir.

PATRICK SMITH: But… what about my sandwich?

HOUSEKEEPING: The fridge must be locked. Because of the sanitary condition.

And so on.

I spend a lot of time in hotels. Witnessing the various ways they’ve responded to the ongoing pandemic has been equally amusing and frustrating. The focus on cleanliness has been relentless, spawning an arms race of extreme and often bizarre measures. Although different chains have come up with different gestures, there are certain constants: the remote-control handset encased in plastic, for example, and the ubiquitous QR placard in place of a room service menu. The Gideon’s have been scooped from the drawers; pens and notepads have disappeared.

How effective these measures might be isn’t my expertise, but suffice it to say I’m skeptical. The idea, so far as I can tell, is to reduce the number of so-called “touchpoint.” In a hotel room, of all places, this feels a bit absurd. Not to mention, health organizations say that the chances of COVID spreading via surfaces are tiny.

Usually the effect is merely comical, but occasionally it’s maddening. One night in Los Angeles I was forced to drink tap water out of my hand because the room had been stripped of cups and glasses. “Yes, we’ve removed all beverage-related items,” was the response to my complaint. There’s still a bed, and a shower, and toilet for that matter. But nothing to rinse with after brushing your teeth.

In a hotel near Kennedy Airport, “per order of the governor,” according to the sign, the 24-hour continental snack buffet — a small cabinet of pastries and fruit — is now available only from 5 a.m. until 10 a.m. Did I miss something about people contracting coronavirus through donuts? If so, from this point on you can only catch it in the morning.

Cynics will wonder how much of this, misguided as it might be, is truly in the interest of safety rather than opportunistic cost-cutting. We’ll see what returns and what doesn’t. When companies start throwing around words like “streamlining” to describe their customer experience strategies, that’s a euphemism for scaling back.

Meanwhile, I’m convinced that one of the byproducts of the pandemic has been a tenfold increase in the manufacture — and subsequent discarding — of single-use plastics. Everything now is wrapped in plastic, from hotel silverware to the food on airplanes.

Have you flown in first or business class lately? On many airlines, each course of the meal service — salad, entree, dessert — comes plated in its own little polystyrene house. Indeed, each individual roll or bread slice is wrapped in cellophane. Mind you this wrapping is done by hand, which would seem to undermine the whole endeavor, but in a world drifting ever deeper into dystopian madness, never let reason stand in the way of pointlessness and waste.

The morning after that mini-fridge episode, I was passing through the crew security checkpoint at the Mexico City airport. I was subjected to repeated pat-downs and was asked to proceed twice through the body scanner. The culprit was — wait for it now — a slip of paper in my shirt pocket. A man ordered me to stand before him with my arms outstretched. He slipped on a pair of sanitary gloves, touched me lightly on the breast pocket, then took off the gloves and threw them away. Off to the side, at the x-ray belt, my colleague was having his suitcase eviscerated by two guards who’d spotted a tiny corkscrew inside — the kind that attaches to a keychain.

Am I the only one who sees the parallels here? Am I the only one getting nervous? We are all familiar with the phrase “security theater.” Will “virus theater” be next?

Twenty years after the attacks of 9/11 and we’re still confiscating pointy objects from pilots, wasting billions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of time on security protocols that nobody can justify or explain. And it’s doubtful they will ever go away. Once such things become policy, with entire bureaucracies constructed to support them, they are often impossible to march back. The traveling public simply gets used to them.

Although the COVID crisis will not last forever, don’t be surprised if aspects of it — even, or especially, the silliest and most illogical ones — are still with us for years to come.

PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR.

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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 it’s a cinch through TSA. 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.

 

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Q&A WITH THE PILOT, CORONAVIRUS EDITION.
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This article appeared originally on The Points Guy website and is being used with permission.

 
 
 
 
 

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Q&A With the Pilot, Coronavirus Edition

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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