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  • Parker Sears

Airline industry, pilots hit hard by COVID-19 in 2021

Covid-19 has disrupted the most convenient way of transportation - by airplane - and that has put a strain on the people most responsible for that transportation - the pilots.

The airline industry has been growing in recent years, even after the aftermath of 9/11, which brought a tough decade to the airline industry. U.S. airlines lost nearly $8 billion in 2001 and the industry wasn’t able to become profitable until 2006. Along with the financial strain that occurred, there were many job cuts as well as pay cuts for those who weren’t laid off.

“It was obviously a big shock,” said Andy, an Airbus A320 pilot at American Airlines. “It was an unexpected shock because the industry was booming.”

The airlines fought to come back financially by changing various elements of airline travel - charging fees to check bags, making the coach cabin smaller with more seats to allow more passengers, and even offering perks such as early boarding for a fee.

But a worldwide pandemic has brought nothing but confusion and question marks in the state of the industry, not to mention for the pilots involved.

With their health and also jobs on the line, pilots across the country have had to deal with a lot of changing requirements and protocols.

And as the Omicron variant once again threatened national and international travel in late 2021 and early 2022, the airline industry is reeling to keep passengers in the planes and pilots in the cockpit.

Debate about vaccines

The aviation industry has had to adapt quickly the past two years in order to keep passengers and pilots safe from the ever-changing novel coronavirus- as well as the ever-changing understanding of the virus.

Implementing the use of masks for all passengers on commercial flights as well as penalties up to $1,500 was all done to help stop the spread of COVID-19s and protect everyone from getting infected and passing it on to others.

And now that the vaccine has been available for months with strong evidence of success, many airlines are mandating vaccines for pilots and other airline personnel.

COVID-19 cases were dropping in the fall as vaccinations increased across the country, with over 195 million Americans vaccinated, so airlines had to make choices about whether to mandate vaccines.

Many airlines such as American, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue are following the footsteps of United Airlines in requiring their employees and pilots to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Incentives include such things as higher pay or a bonus if a pilot or flight attendant gets the vaccine.

Some airlines such as Alaska Airlines and JetBlue have already required that all personnel be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 8. Other airlines are split on the decision whether to force their employees to get vaccinated or not. Frontier Airlines has told its employees that if they don’t get vaccinated they must test regularly for COVID.

President Joe Biden in September issued a vaccine mandate for federal workers, which airline industry execs believed included their employees since they come under the FAA umbrella.

In January, a federal judge ruled that the mandate for federal workers was unconstitutional, so there could still be changes among the airline requirements for employees.

“The union has given us the rights to get the shot or not get the shot,” said Greg, a pilot at UPS, adding that the union negotiated as well as offered incentives. “The union went in and negotiated with the company, and they offered to pay $4,000 to captains to get the shot.”

American Airlines, on the other hand, took a different approach regarding the vaccines.

“We have to get the vaccines and had to prove it by Nov. 24 or else you can’t work at American anymore,” said Andy, an American Airlines pilot for several years. “I believe 30% of our pilots are not vaccinated right now.”

Andy noted that if the percentage stays that way, it could be tough on the industry - and ultimately consumers - over the holidays and beyond.

“But this could cause a severe disruption to the scheduling of pilots at American especially as we enter the Christmas season,” he said.

Different restrictions in different regions

One of the tougher things for pilots during the pandemic has been the variety of restrictions and protocols depending on the location.

“Now in the cockpit if someone falls ill to COVID all of the pilots must quarantine,” said Greg. This means any pilots must be more cautious in the cockpit and careful of spreading it to their coworkers.

Usually cargo flights consist of two pilots but longer flights there can be three or four, depending on the distance of that flight.

Unlike with the commercial airlines, cargo pilots don’t have to worry as much about the many passengers who could potentially spread the virus.

One of the tougher things for pilots during the pandemic has been the variety of restrictions and protocols, depending on the location.

Some countries have strict regulations when entering and have confined pilots to their hotel rooms once they’ve entered the country. Pilots are responsible for following the rules in other countries and keeping themselves safe on overnights.

Like many people, pilots have had to adjust to different work environments whether that be overseas or in the United States.

“In Asia and Singapore, they lock you in your room and bring you your food,” said Greg. “In Hungary and Budapest on the other hand, they have an armed guard to make sure you don’t leave.”

Some countries used to be considered COVID hotspots and this is their way of keeping citizens of their country safe from foreign travelers.

“Japan allows you to go out but to avoid public transportation, and get takeout food instead of dining at the restaurant, and countries such as Ireland, Sweden, and Europe are fairly open and have loosened their restrictions,” Greg added.

Many pilots have also had to adjust to changing restrictions in parts of the United States as well. Since Andy has more domestic routes, he is constantly in different cities in the United States.

“Many things have changed,” he said. “I was in San Francisco a few weeks back, and with the Delta Variant they said you have to show a vaccine passport to get into a restaurant and you have to wear masks at all times in public places. Some places such as Nashville are much more relaxed, and masks are optional.”

Low supply, high demand brings problems and opportunity for pilots

One of the side effects that has arisen from the pandemic hitting the airlines is the lack of pilots to help passengers travel from one place to another along with a decreased supply of products people are ordering.

The pilot shortage has been fueled by many layoffs, people reaching the retirement age of 65, and the overall cost of becoming a pilot. The U.S. airline industry was struggling with the shortage prior to the pandemic.

In order to combat the shortage of pilots, American Airlines’ regional group, Piedmont Airlines is offering over $180,000 in retention bonuses, with hopes of keeping those pilots at that airline during this crucial time.

David Buckner, a certified flight instructor, believes that the lasting effects of COVID “will increase the shortage or at least accelerate the time frame,” for the ongoing pilot shortage.

Since the demand for people to travel is coming back, many airlines are scrambling trying to hire new pilots after many senior pilots retired. Many airlines such as Delta, are planning on hiring over 1,000 pilots over the next few years. This will help keep the travel demand high and allow the airlines to bounce back to where they were before the pandemic.

Greg has never been as busy with the UPS routes he has been tasked with flying as he has the past few months.

“We are flying now more than ever because there is more business, there are more people ordering products, and people are paying more to get their product quicker. I have flown more in the past year and a half than I have my whole life, and UPS is giving financial incentives to fly on our days off.” - Greg, UPS pilot

As the pandemic is still rampant in many areas, some countries have forced lockdowns on their citizens, but cargo flights haven’t been as affected.

Even under lockdowns and quarantines, people need products, so ordering to be shipped instead of going out to buy them requires air transport.

Many of his flights are full of medical supplies that are transferred to other countries, such as vaccines, COVID test kits, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) being the few items that helped combat the virus.

Greg believes his job as a cargo flight has been important in helping America and other countries fight the pandemic by helping get the necessary supplies going where they are needed.

He knew he was doing something special to help everyone in the time of need, which often included transporting vaccines.

Every flight he knew whether or not vaccines were on board because, “dry ice was the indicator that we were hauling vaccines.”

Andy has been busy as well. During the summer months, he claimed that it was the busiest summer he has ever had flying.

“In the summer, Americans were flying domestically more than they ever have,” he explained. “More people are flying around America because they couldn’t go on vacation to Europe, since those people were flying a lot we were still getting very full airplanes. Some of us were flying 80 hour months, which is pretty high.”

Pandemic hits flight schools too

It hasn’t just been commercial and cargo flights that have been affected by COVID-19. The heart of aviation-the flight schools- have been impacted as well.

Buckner remembers the panic flight schools had to endure during the chaos of the at the very beginning of the pandemic.

“Flight schools were equally affected by the panic caused by COVID,” said Buckner. “This caused instructor lay-offs and severe pay cuts for instructors and many big flight schools struggling to stay afloat.”

Since there has been a pilot shortage for many years, the effects of COVID have only made the situation worse. A recent survey sent out to 150 flight schools in different areas reported that 49.6% of flight schools never closed, 35% closed and 12.7% limited operations to solo and rental flights.

Buckner’s flight school never officially closed but, “operations did stop for the period of time when everyone was quarantining,” he said.

But Buckner said the school was not without its fair share of obstacles to overcome. The six-foot social distancing rules makes it nearly impossible in training aircraft since the cockpit is so small.

“Masks were optional in the airport and airplane. We sanitized the airplane in between lessons and made sure no one had been in contact with anyone that had Covid without being tested,” he explained. “Usually if I had a student that wanted to wear a mask, I would wear one in the cockpit. This was definitely not comfortable and could be frustrating when trying to talk over the intercom or radio.”

Despite the changing protocols and constant restrictions, Buckner and his students have adapted. But he’s looking forward to going back to the usual routine.

“The industry is making a comeback and I can’t wait to see how it’s going to grow after this is all finally put to bed.”

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