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Airlines go from boom to bust

So much for that pilot shortage

What had been the hottest job market for pilots in 60 years just went up in smoke. Thousands of airplanes have been parked, terminals are empty, and an entire industry has been flipped upside down in less than a month, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

California's Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport has empty parking lots and airliners parked at gates with nowhere to go during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Julie Belanger of The 111th Aerial Photography Squadron.

Collectively, we airline crewmembers are worried about the future, even those with more than 20 years of seniority. The hit this virus has put on our industry is far worse than anything we've ever seen. Two regional airlines, Compass Airlines and Trans States Airlines, have already folded. The effect of this pandemic is exponentially worse than the aftereffects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which put many airlines through painful bankruptcies. But, there is one bright spot in this event—cargo operators. More on that later.

Airline employees are considered essential workers by the government, so we can still move freely about the world, albeit with plenty of hassle. I flew my last trip March 20 through 23. The trip was scheduled with two legs per day. That all came apart the day before the trip started with cancellations and changes. The airports were deserted, and many people wore masks and/or gloves. Security lines were nonexistent, and most retail spots in the terminals shuttered. The largest number of people I carried on my Boeing 737 was 117, and that was only because my airline canceled three flights between the city pair and consolidated them all into my flight. Typically, I was flying a few dozen people. In an industry of slim margins, flying at 10-percent capacity means your airline is losing money before you even turn on the airplane's battery switch.

Because of the constant, often last-minute changes, schedulers are having a hard time positioning crews. Crewmembers who live far away from base are having a hard time getting to work because there are no flights. Once they get on duty, pilots and flight attendants are being deadheaded around the system to be in position for flights. But once in position, it’s not a surprise if that flight gets canceled too. Out of eight scheduled legs on my last trip, we flew only two.

Life on the road is quite boring, frankly. After checking in and scouring commonly touched surfaces in your hotel room, you can unwind from the daily grind of airline life—unfortunately now it's dunked in a thick stew of uncertainty and fluctuation. Hotels, themselves crippled by this outbreak, have just a skeleton crew of employees and no open restaurants, bars, or fitness rooms. Upon check-in at one of the layovers on my last trip, I asked the front desk how full the hotel was and was told it was 5 percent—all of those rooms occupied by crewmembers from my airline. If you're lucky you might find a hot meal to grab as carry-out or room service, but during limited hours. Many nearby restaurants are closed and the ones that are open are carry-out only. Essentially there's nothing to do. Were it not for internet and electricity, we'd likely all go batty during layovers.

Of course, throughout this pandemic, we pilots are rightfully concerned about our own risk of infection while attempting to not let it distract us so much that it compromises safety. Yep, pilots are getting so distracted that they're making stupid errors. Personally, I try to keep my routine as normal as it was before, albeit with more hand-washing and resisting the urge to touch my face. Others go far more to the extreme and I have no problem with that so long as it doesn't start interfering with the job. Thankfully, three weeks later, I'm still healthy. Others were not so lucky. Several pilots at my airline have come down with the virus.

To mitigate losses, my airline has picked up some cargo segments, but that's just a Band-Aid on a large gash. In the last two weeks of March, my airline experienced a loss of revenue averaging $100 million in revenue—per day. With the schedule drawdown, voluntary leaves, and other cost-cutting measures, April and May will slow the revenue loss somewhat. Acceptance of the bailout loan from the U.S. government is supposed to ensure that we keep our jobs until September 30. After that, it will likely be drastic cuts, barring some miracle.

Good news, however, has come to cargo operators such as Atlas, FedEx, and United Parcel Service Inc. With the passenger airlines largely shut down, all the cargo and mail that used to fly in the bellies of passenger jets has been handed over to the cargo operators. "We are booming," said a recently hired UPS pilot. "I have had no changes to my [schedule] and get calls to come in on my days off," she added.

"The loads here are at max allowable on every leg," said an Atlas pilot I spoke to. FedEx has added eight ocean-crossing routes in recent weeks, and a source there says with passenger airlines largely shuttered, FedEx has resorted to getting crews in place via chartered business jets.

Sadly, as of this writing, we're only in the beginning of what will likely be a long road to recovery for passenger airlines as well as many other businesses associated with travel. And the recovery may never get to the level it was prior to the virus. People will likely remain skeptical of being in close proximity to one another for quite a while after this epidemic. If true, the passenger airline industry may not recover fully anytime soon.

Peter A. Bedell

Pete Bedell is a pilot for a major airline and co-owner of a Cessna 172M and Beechcraft Baron D55.
Topics: COVID19, Career, Financial

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