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Career Pilot: This too shall pass

The pandemic upended the airline industry, but there’s hope for pilots

The coronavirus pandemic devastated the airline industry in just a few short weeks.
Career Pilot
Illustration by Leigh Caulfield

California implemented the first state stay-at-home order March 19, and soon other states followed suit. As airline travel plunged, two regional airlines, Compass and Trans States, met their demise. The major airlines experienced severe financial turbulence. By late March Delta Air Lines had grounded 600 airplanes and reduced its capacity by 70 percent while American Airlines trimmed capacity by 50 percent, United Airlines by 65 percent, and JetBlue by 55 percent. Virtually no name-brand passenger airline has been unscathed. Flights that did launch averaged only 20 to 30 percent full. To appreciate the fallout, on April 2, fewer than 125,000 people passed through airport security checkpoints—compared to 2.4 million people on the equivalent day in 2019.

Career Pilot
The 9/11 attacks and the financial crisis of 2008 had a striking effect on the profits of major U.S. airlines.

As expected, this predicament has had its impact on pilot hiring—a shift that serves as a wake-up call to the throngs of future professional pilots at aviation colleges, academies, and neighborhood flight schools. For many years, airlines large and small were scrounging for professional flying talent. Gone were the days when the carriers demanded 2,000 hours of total time and 500 hours of multiengine time to snag a flight deck seat. If a human could walk, talk, fog a mirror, and fly an airplane, an airline flying career was within reach as soon as the airline transport pilot minimums were met. How quickly the world has changed with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Seemingly overnight, new-hire classes were postponed or canceled. Now add several thousand experienced FAR Part 121 pilots hunting for work after their airlines shut down.

Engage any retired airline pilot, and chances are that veteran has experienced an involuntary layoff, in some instances lasting five years or more. Although the domestic airline executives had pledged to avoid furloughing pilots before October 1, internationally it was a different story. Air Canada planned to put 600 pilots on the street; Finnair contemplated a layoff of at least 700 pilots; Chinese carriers sent expatriate pilots packing.

Although the circumstances of the global coronavirus pandemic are unique, significant periodic crashes of the airline industry are a given. Hiring was at a virtual standstill in the early 1980s in large part because of a debilitating recession in 1982, and dropped again at the turn of the decade when international travel decreased because of a fear of terrorism and the Iraq War. The industry was clobbered again after 9/11 and again in 2008 by the global financial crisis, as the Department of Transportation data above illustrates.

Things have been rosy since 2010, but here we are again. By the end of March, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expected the coronavirus outbreak to reduce airline revenues from passenger operations by $252 billion in 2020, compared to 2019. That equates to a 44-percent fall in passenger revenues from 2019 and is driven by a 38-percent reduction in global traffic.

So, what to do? Mom and Dad have a good old saying: “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” Prepare now for the next downturn. If you are an airline pilot or flying professionally in any capacity, while in those long hours at the hotel between flights, enroll in an online course. Get a degree in something other than aviation. Learn a trade. Some airline captains are dentists or run a construction company on the side.

As has been said, airline flying is the best part-time job out there. For the younger aviators eying an airline flying career, expand your horizons and fill in the gaps left by a total immersion in aviation at your school so you can weather the next storm. For the mid-life career changers who transitioned to passenger flying, don’t let those skills developed in another industry atrophy. Use those previously honed talents as a consultant. You can return to the cockpit when the industry turns around.

As important, stay current. If you are furloughed, join the Civil Air Patrol or U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and keep flying. Fly puppies with Pilots N Paws. Dust off that flight instructor certificate and get back into the right seat.

But if you are stressed out, look at the data. After every downturn there is a bright side. It may take some time, but the industry has always bounced back. Before COVID-19, 2019 marked the tenth consecutive year of profitability for the global airline industry, and the world’s airlines jointly reported record net earnings of $36 billion.

Although 2020 started out rocky, the pilot shortage is real and demand will continue once things stabilize. If anything, remember this next bit of mom and dad advice: “This too shall pass.”

Wayne Phillips

Wayne Phillips manages the Airline Training Orientation Program.

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