The industry went from pilot shortage to thousands of pilots on the streets in weeks. Two regional airlines, Compass Airlines and Trans States Airlines, folded almost immediately. Most of the majors will furlough thousands of pilots each and plan to emerge as much smaller airlines on the back end of this.
The U.S. government stepped in to prop up the airlines with a combination of grants and loans totaling about $50 billion. In return, the government got warrants that effectively allow it to take future stock in the companies that took the bailout. This aspect could get interesting in the future. In the meantime, the bailout created a six-month income crutch for most frontline airline employees. For those in the lower ranks of the seniority lists, it seems more like a severance because of looming furloughs.
For us pilots, well, it’s a radically changed world to say the least. Besides barely flying, an aura of uncertainty is draped over everyone’s career. Thousands are losing their jobs and those being displaced from captain back to first officer are looking at big pay cuts. The long-term ramifications of this pandemic make the post-9/11 downturn look tiny in comparison.
In May and June, my airline cut 90 percent of its capacity, and I didn’t fly at all. On June 7, my landing currency expired and I essentially became unavailable to the company without being retrained. Per our union contract, I was paid the minimum monthly guarantee, which as a captain is quite good. But in mid-June, I received word that I was to be displaced to first officer, which is about a 40-percent pay cut. I’m not griping as I’m thankful I still have a job. As of this writing, there have been no furloughs, but we expect that hammer to drop in July.
What trips are being flown introduce a new reality to airline pilots. For those who commute to their base via the airlines, the reduction of flights has made it somewhat of a nightmare. There may only be one flight per day instead of four, for example. Or there may be no options except those requiring connections through a far-away hub. With airlines attempting social distancing by leaving middle seats empty, capacity is greatly reduced, which means you may be left behind despite there being dozens of open seats.
Once you get to the airport, there’s a requirement to get your temperature checked before you can clear security. Masks are required everywhere except in the cockpit after the door is closed. Pilots can wear a mask in the cockpit but there are some issues with muffled communications, no capability to read lips, and potential conflict with oxygen masks. To reduce the chance of infection, the FAA now requires oxygen mask use above Flight Level 410, rather than FL250, when one pilot leaves the cockpit.
Worst of all is the fact that pilots whose skills were sharp from flying 80 hours per month are now suffering from pilot atrophy, thanks to lack of flying. Altitude busts, landing without a clearance, procedural errors, and missed position reports are some examples of the mistakes that are happening. In-cockpit conversation about the many changes in our industry lead to involved discussions, aka distractions, resulting in errors. It takes discipline to avoid the distractions and focus on the job. Save the discussion for the van ride to the hotel.
Let’s end this with the good news. Although still drastically reduced, most airlines are ramping back up their schedules. Southwest Airlines added 1,600 flights in late June.
With the reduced number of flights, the air traffic system runs quite well. Flights are on time and the lack of traffic on the ground and in the air means that arrivals are almost always early. Delays are largely limited to mechanical causes and weather. The volume delays so prevalent in New York City have essentially disappeared.
Finally, the cargo segment continues to boom, and those carriers are still hiring to meet demand.