The Volatility of Commercial Aviation and its Effect on Flight Crew

I was really enjoying writing about my experiences in dealing with a fear of flying, and then subsequently learning to fly etc. (I have another blog post nearly finished), but I have had many conversations recently with fellow pilots who are dealing with life in lock-down as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Aviation is a very volatile industry and is one of the first to be affected when there is any kind of financial hiccup in the world economy. Unfortunately, we are in the midst of the worst since the Second World War.

I’ve been flying for over twenty years, firstly as a private pilot but for the last ten years or so as an airline pilot. I was lucky in that I was able to gain work with an airline during the last down turn, and I remember how fellow aviators who had invested significant savings, or had gambled on a total career change and given up jobs to concentrate on flying were really struggling to make ends meet when the opportunities just weren’t there. We’ve had an affluent few years recently in aviation. Most people I know who had completed training had finally found opportunities, and the forecast was for continued growth even though some airlines (such as Flybe for instance) had failed. There certainly wasn’t talk of contraction even though the industry goes through cycles of boom and bust, but no-one could have predicted what we are experiencing now.

As a newly qualified pilot with a Frozen ATPL , unless you’re extremely lucky, or decide to go into the industry as a cadet straight out of education, the opportunities are few and far between. The first step on the career ladder usually requires you to take a relatively low paid job flying turbo prop aircraft, and most probably in another country or a long way from home at least. I faced just that kind of upheaval. My first job was in the Channel Islands. I was away from home for weeks at a time as I wasn’t offered a commuting contact, and when I was home, it was usually just for a night or two unless I was on leave. And as was to be expected with me having no airline experience, the salary was relatively low and the cost of living on the island was high. Having left a well paid job in a secure industry, spent a significant amount of money (including savings) learning to fly, and then moving out of the family home at short notice to take a job offer, you wouldn’t be wrong for thinking a lot of commitment and passion for the industry was required! And as pilots, that’s what we have – an almost obsessive passion for aviation – and sadly for some due to the volatility of the commercial aviation industry, that is a downfall!

That first job is a milestone – if you haven’t already paid for a “type rating” on a commercial airliner, your new employer pays for it and bonds you for maybe two or three years so that if you leave prematurely, you will have to pay back any owed costs relating to the training they have given you. You then start building hours on the aircraft and one day after a lot of hard work (hopefully enjoyable), you hit that holy grail of the 500 hour milestone. Not only have you become (hopefully) an experienced and valuable asset to your current airline, you are also becoming an attractive proposition to other airlines. The goal posts widen! You continue to hour build while applying to other airlines, ones closer to home that would never have given you an opportunity due to your lack of experience. You continue to hour build and you reach the next milestone – 1500 hours!

1500 is the magic number of hours flown that allows you to unfreeze your ATPL, which in turn opens up opportunities and career progression. You take that job you always wanted allowing you to be based at your home airport. You’re earning more money and going home to your family after work instead of hotels abroad or temporary living accommodation. The airline offers you either promotion to captain on your current aircraft, or a shift onto the Jet fleet. Your experience continues to develop as your hours grow. You aren’t applying for jobs as you’re in your dream position, but as the industry is doing so well you’re getting very attractive offers from other airlines. Less experienced friends and colleagues are also getting their first opportunities and following in your footsteps. Having an understanding of the cyclic nature of the industry, when you’ve reached this level of experience you start to get a feeling that you’re relatively safe even if there is a down turn. This is how it was for me and numerous colleagues!

Why have I explained all this? Well because it gives you a little understanding of just what we go through to become airline pilots and with no guarantee of a career and very little job security some would say we have to be insane to do it, and if I’d known back in those distant days of aviation naivety what I know now, I would be calling myself insane! But, I’d probably still have carried on because once caught by the aviation bug rational thinking goes out of the window.

The shift has been seismic – almost all of the pilots in my close circle have gone from being extremely busy to nothing. The UK skies are empty and quiet apart from cargo or military, and very occasional passenger flights. Each day the news from airlines seems to get worse. Airline after Airline is announcing job cuts and long term downsizing of operations. Although for some pilots their flying careers will continue when the world slowly starts to heal, for others this is the end, either for good or for an extremely long time. All the hard work and effort, the vast expense, stress of exams and flight training, trying to secure that first job, and the prolonged time away from family to make career progress, it’s all been wiped out in weeks!

The impact on flight crew who have no jobs to go back to will be varied, some older pilots with long careers will be financially more secure and will either say enough is enough and decide to do something different or will look to return in a part time capacity in the future. Those who are younger, have invested significantly and are in the early stages of their careers are likely to be affected the most, both mentally and financially. They will need to find jobs to keep the wolves away from the door – most likely unskilled jobs because the skills we learn as pilots are transferable to very few industries. They will need to keep their ratings and medical current which is expensive. It also becomes more difficult to pass each simulator check because there will be no flying in between and a pilot quickly becomes “rusty” with prolonged periods out of the flight deck. The accumulation of cost and increased difficulty passing a sim check will for some reach a point where they can’t continue. Line Proficiency checks and medicals will expire and that will be it – end of career – back to square one! It will be totally life changing. Others will hang in there and re-establish flying careers.

Mental health certainly suffers during downturns in the aviation industry and the prolonged impact of the Coronavirus will have a substantial effect on some crew, especially flight crew. I am seeing it already. I have regular chats with colleagues to discuss current events and future plans and prospects, and unfortunately, I am seeing the initial positivity and hope slowly turn to negativity and even despair for some. I’m not saying that mental health issues are more profound within aviation than in other industries, I fully understand that the impact of the Coronavirus has touched almost every profession, but it is clear that aviation will be damaged beyond what anyone could have imagined just a few months ago; recovery will be slow and protracted, and subsequently mental health issues amongst crew are likely to be higher than during previous downturns. I will be writing a post about pilot health matters in the near future.
I’m not saying aircrew are generally prone to mental health issues, it’s just that the financial and personal implications of work disruption for those on the flight deck are likely be higher than those in other areas of aviation and other industries because we have less transferable skills.

I, like a many others in aviation take a pragmatic approach to this current situation. Despite our best efforts, we cannot control or change what is likely to happen to the industry. I am fairly confident that my road back to the flight deck will be a protracted one no matter how much flying experience and time I have in the industry. Flying is in my blood, it defines me, and I’ve asked myself many times if I will lose my identity when the flying stops. I’m clearly about to find out, but I think the answer is no. I am privileged to have had a great career so far, I’ve flown some wonderful aeroplanes including the Boeing 737, and I’ve visited some wonderful places (I’ll post a gallery of images I’ve taken soon). I have made amazing memories and have had some fantastic times with my aviation friends and colleagues. I’m still an aviator, a professional pilot no matter what kind of work I have to do until I am flying again.

(Image (c) Judi Ballard Photography)

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