If you asked a “freight dog” pilot about his job, he’d tell you it was the best kept secret in commercial aviation, and most definitely the flying job to be in. Ask a pilot working for the passenger airlines about freight flying, and he’ll tell you it lacks any kind of glamour, and is where all the pilots with no people skills go. Now we are in the deepest depths of the Covid pandemic, It’s not difficult to imagine which pilot is having the last laugh!
Having worked as an executive within a large corporate company for many years before moving into the airline industry as a pilot, I am privileged to be in a position of having a good understanding of how a big business operates from a decision maker perspective, and also that of a worker at the coal face (to coin a phrase). As a result some of the operational decisions that airlines make completely baffle me, Airline profits are low and overheads are extortionate even without considering the cash being blown by bad decision making and inefficient use of resource, and knowing that the industry is fragile and volatile, you’d think money would be spent cautiously. But it was clear to see that even very shortly after the start of the pandemic, some airlines were beginning to worry and were running low on cash. Aircraft on the ground generating no revenue inevitably meant redundancies, but sadly this time on an unprecedented scale.
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the passenger airline industry has been effectively decimated, but conversely, the cargo airlines are experiencing continued expansion and growth thanks to the likes of global online retailers such as Amazon. Because far less people are currently travelling abroad for holidays, they are choosing to spend their cash on goods. Add to the mix the continued trend of shopping online for bargains instead of using the traditional high street retailers then it’s easy to see why this sector is growing so quickly.
The passenger airline industry has historically gone from boom to bust in a roughly ten to fifteen year cycle (detailed in an interesting contribution from a colleague), but the cargo sector (especially today) seems to be affected far less by economic influences. One of the biggest problems for the cargo sector historically has been the recruitment of flight crew. Pilots are generally keen to fly for the more glamorous passenger airlines than to fly older, less reliable cargo aircraft – unless they’ve worked for one of the respected cargo airlines that is.
I first started flying with a passenger airline and had an enjoyable couple of years, but worked from a non UK base which meant a lot of my time off was spent commuting back and forth from home. I then got a lucky break with a well respected cargo operator flying from my home base.
Fast forward seven years to the start of last year and I made a decision to return to passenger flying at completely the wrong time, and I joined the thousands of pilots who are now tapping their fingers waiting for the industry to kickstart again. Some of those pilots type rated on the right aircraft would have been able to shift to the cargo airlines which in turn made the expansion of those cargo airlines easier.
Cargo really is having its day – for now, but I predict that is going to change once a vaccine for the virus is rolled out and passenger confidence returns. The pilot and cabin crew attrition rate has increased as the pandemic has dragged out. Some crew have simply decided enough is enough and the industry is just not a viable option any longer. Some have decided to take early retirement, but sadly others haven’t had the money to self fund annual licence renewals etc. and have been forced to give up. New pilots are training in the hope they will time it just right when the jobs market opens up again but not in vast numbers – and these pilots will be very inexperienced. Also, there are experienced pilots like myself who will keep our ratings current and be ready to take opportunities when they arise but it won’t just be a case of jumping back into the cockpit as there is a lag while crew are given refresher training before going on to the line. There is the potential for passenger airline demand for pilots to outstrip supply for a time and this is what will adversely affect the cargo airlines. Some pilots take to cargo flying well and deal with the unsociable hours and fatigue, but others really struggle with it – especially those from the passenger airlines who have been lucky to do mostly day flying, It will be these pilots who reluctantly went to the the cargo operators when they lost their passenger flying jobs who will flock back to their old airlines. For a time the cargo airlines will struggle to source crew and will be forced to take on inexperienced pilots into a sector that is physically and mentally very demanding even for those pilots with lots of time in the industry.
That age old cyclic reversal of power will happen again – but this time it will be the pilots calling the shots.
(Image (c) Judi Ballard Photography)