Flying $450 million airliners was once a dream job, and there was no shortage of opportunity. Last year Boeing Co. estimated that airlines would need to add 800,000 pilots over the next 20 years to feed an Asia-led travel boom; some carriers in China were offering salaries of more than $300,000 a year, plus perks, to woo industry veterans.
Then coronavirus began to spread and overseas travel halted, grounding 51% of the world’s global fleet. As they wait to see whether they’ll ever get back in the cockpit, pilots have turned to a mishmash of odd jobs and second-choice careers.
They’re hardly alone—some 1 billion workers across industries worldwide could face unemployment or pay cuts as a result of lockdowns, border closures and economic paralysis. But few jobs have swung from a stubborn and severe shortage to a vast surplus within a matter of weeks, and it offers insight into how one specialized workforce is adapting to a potential hammer blow.
“We will do anything we can by problem solving and managing risks to protect our families,” said Chris Riggins, a pilot for Delta Air Lines Inc. and a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. “If that means working in a grocery store, pilots will do it.”
In fact, some are working at supermarkets, others at phone companies, still more learning to drive trucks or working in financial services. Many are finding that the side gigs they’ve developed over the years are now the mainstay.
Two years ago, Qantas Airways Ltd. pilot Richard Garner, who is based in Brisbane, set up a company to provide financial advice and arrange loans for airline staff. It was never meant to be a career—he flew his first plane at 14 and never wanted to do anything else. Until March, he was flying Airbus A330s on popular long-haul routes between Australia and Asia, then Qantas furloughed two-thirds of its 30,000 employees, including the 43-year-old Garner.
Now, he said, his firm, Crew Financial, “has turned into the No. 1 gig. It’s not the story I really wanted to have, but when the world gives you lemons, make lemonade. Isn’t that what you say?”
Domestic flights are starting to take off again in many countries including China and the U.S., the world’s two largest air travel markets. American Airlines Group Inc., for example, is boosting its July schedule by 74% compared with June—and it’s still well short of its 2019 capacity.
While the increase is providing some relief, flights globally are down more than two-thirds compared with this time last year, according to flight-tracker OAG Aviation Worldwide Ltd. Airlines in Western Europe, Latin America and South Asia were more than 70% below their pre-virus flight schedules as of June 8, OAG said.
It’s not clear when, if ever, the industry will fully recover. Airlines worldwide are looking at $84.3 billion in losses and a 50% drop in revenue this year, according to the International Air Transport Association. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. last week said it needed to raise HK$39 billion from the Hong Kong government and shareholders to avoid collapse, and Chairman Patrick Healy warned of “tough decisions” in the fourth quarter to get the airline into “the right size and shape.”
That points to a bleak future for career pilots, many of whom fell in love with planes as children. “Nobody stumbles into the job by accident,” said Robert Bor, clinical director at the Centre for Aviation Psychology, which helps screen pilots for many U.K. carriers. “It attracts the dedicated, the passionate, and sometimes the slightly obsessive.”
In Leeds, northern England, Dave Fielding dreamed of flying fighters since he received a toy plane when he was 7. After discovering he was prone to air sickness, he became a commercial pilot instead. Now a 53-year-old captain, Fielding has flown with British Airways since 1993.
He hasn’t flown for months now, and even the best-case scenario calls for more waiting. As a condition of their government aid, the U.K. airlines can begin bringing pilots back part-time in July, but some will be out through at least October, maybe longer. British Airways aims to cut as many as 12,000 jobs, starting with voluntary retirements.
Newly grounded, Fielding and some colleagues got to work setting up lounges in hospitals to support front-line health workers and serve them tea, coffee and snacks. Project Wingman, as it’s called, now has more than 5,000 air-crew volunteers spread across more than 50 hospitals.
Airline staff are now being encouraged to apply for all sorts of jobs in the hospitals, according to Fielding. “If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that it is a new world,” he said. “This project has opened up options for our volunteers.”
On the popular Professional Pilots Rumour Network, furloughed pilots are talking about their new jobs. A Boeing 737 pilot says stacking supermarket shelves in Australia is “very tough considering I have just over 60-70k of debt.” An Airbus A320 pilot writes of a part-time security job, which pays “in a week what I did earn in half a day.” Another is fixing and installing swimming pools.
It may all be temporary. Boeing points out that passenger demand has repeatedly bounced back after market shocks. Recent setbacks include the SARS outbreak in 2003, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, and the financial crisis less than a decade later.
“The same will begin to happen as the Covid-19 pandemic subsides,” Boeing said in a statement. “Over the long term, the fundamentals that drive the demand for air travel and air freight—and the pilots and technicians who make it possible—are still in place.”
In the short-term, major U.S. airlines including Delta and United Airlines Holdings Inc. need to cut about 20% of their pilots, according to a June 3 report from Cowen and Co. Most of those cuts—between 11,000 and 13,000 in all, will be orchestrated through early retirement. The carriers can’t implement layoffs until after Sept. 30 under the terms of government aid, making Oct. 1 “a day many within the industry are dreading,” Cowen analyst Helene Becker wrote.
Airlines worldwide already plan to eliminate tens of thousands of workers to preserve cash during the years-long recovery. Deutsche Lufthansa AG has said it may have a surplus of 22,000 positions, Alitalia an excess of 6,800. Emirates Group, the world’s biggest long-haul carrier, is considering slashing about 30,000 staff.
The Air Line Pilots Association at Delta is negotiating an early retirement package that would confer some pay and benefits until eligible pilots reach the mandatory retirement age of 65. American Airlines, Southwest Airlines Co. and JetBlue Airways Corp. have offered similar kinds of incentives.
Ultimately, the upheaval may put travelers in the hands of less-experienced pilots, according to Mark Charman, chief executive officer and founder of aviation and pilot-hiring company Goose Recruitment. As the crisis pushes veterans out, it also dissuades others from joining up—especially when they typically pay $150,000 to get qualified for commercial flying.
“A brain drain of experienced talent leaving at the top and not enough new talent joining at the bottom will drive big future skills shortages,” Charman said. “Becoming a pilot is not as attractive as it once was.”
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