* BA's fleet of A320's parked up for storage in Bournemouth *
Aspiring pilots, take note. It’s time to be a realist. The above photos tell me one thing: There’s currently a heck of a lot of crew sitting at home right now doing nothing. This is global. The word bounced around a lot at the moment - “unprecedented” - is certainly correct. I’ve had a few aspiring pilots message me recently asking what’s what. This is what’s happening... the major grounding of the global aviation industry. Some people will label me as harsh or a dream-destroyer for the contents of this blog post, and so be it. I would simply call it realism.
If you’re an aspiring pilot then please please please put the brakes on... for now. From the several emails and messages I've received from the readers of this blog over the years I have come to know that the opinion and viewpoints I provide are somewhat valued. I do not for one second see myself as the font of all knowledge when it comes to this industry, heck... i just fly the planes what do I know about the business management side, right? However, what I can tell you is the coronavirus to aviation is, without a shadow of a doubt, an even bigger threat than 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and the 2010 volcanic eruption combined.
* Delta Airline's regional jets parked up *
If the current events of 2020 were to happening back in 2016 when I set out to gain my wings I'd likely have sat back and let this eery, saddening and potentially career-ending event for so many pass me by. A recession is cyclical but a recession this is not, at least yet! Training during an economic downturn is a risk but one in which has often paid off when factoring in the length of your average course. However, this is not a traditional downturn. Even in the lowest of economic situations there’s always been flights. Even on the 12th September 2001 there were flights. Harrowingly, the magnitude of change at this present moment is simply off the scale. The European market and airspace alone is like walking down a school corridor in the summer holidays. Take a look to the sky, how many contrails do you see? Chances are, it’s zero. easyJet, Ryanair, Jet2, TUI.... none are flying. As the aspiring pilot I hope you can see the evidence placed before you, for the damaging effects of this Coronavirus are huge.
When will it recover, I hear you ask? Your guess is as good as mine I’m afraid. The chances of every government in the world re-opening their borders at the same time is minimal. There will be, in my opinion, a somewhat trickle-fed reintroduction of flying. It could well take years for things to return to the way they were. Then again, nothing is impossible so it could also happen overnight or over the space of a couple of weeks. We can certainly hope for the latter. We (airlines) are very much in the hands of the customer. A lot of it will be based on their confidence to travel. If there is a positive to draw out it's that with the increasing duration of any lockdown, people will likely want to travel and get out from their prison cell of weeks past.
I don't mean to be so negative throughout this, but it's important to give you the facts here. I love my job and like many of my friends we silently fear for our futures. Airlines have fixed costs irrespective of whether they fly or not and with zero flights comes zero revenue and with zero revenue comes an immediate cash flow issue. More out of the bank than coming in means airlines are burning a hole in the metaphorical back-pocket. Something you and I can both agree as something being unsustainable over the long-term.
* Cathay Pacific wide body jets parked up *
Of course, airlines have cash reserves but even they can only go so far. While some airlines have reserves bigger than others you'll have probably already noticed those with the smaller reserves already seeking help from their respective governments. We're only a week or two into the lockdown situation too!! As airlines fight for self-survival the main variable at play is time. If time states the lockdown ends in 2 weeks - hoorah, I and many other pilots could go back to work and airlines could resume all their flying as normal. However, that variable is not known. It could be weeks, it could be months, it could well be many months. The UK government has hinted this week at the likelihood of it extending in one shape or another to the grand total of six months. That's a long time and I know that I as an individual couldn't afford to pay my dues with nothing coming in for that length of time. Airlines are no different. To cut to the chase on this point: No cash in = No money for salaries = A need to cut costs = Pay cuts = Potential sale / mortgaging of aircraft = At worst, but not ruled out, sweeping job losses.
If it were to get to the point where that became a reality we'd suddenly be faced with one very large pool full of highly skilled airline pilots. If airlines shrink their operation to survive and thus cut destinations or close bases, then the chances are less pilots will be needed overall. The sad prospect there is any aspiring pilot will be up against men and women with much higher hours than them, often already type-rated too! If you've still got your blinkers on then you're probably thinking well this is all in the present. What about in 2 years time? You're possibly telling yourself that if you start training tomorrow it'd all be over by the time you finish and that you'd surely find a job by then? There lies the ever-unanswerable questions.
* American Airlines wide-body jets parked up *
To be frank, I am personally facing a a period of unpaid leave supplemented by the UK government's furlough arrangements, but nonetheless I and all other pilots at my airline - and many other airlines - are out of work. The airlines can't financially sustain flight. Prior to this current grounding situation some of my flights only had 5 passengers! People did not want to fly. With any unpaid period extending for at least 2 months I've no idea what happens beyond that! Alarmingly I've still got well over £100,000 of training debts to repay alongside other financial committments too and that's the scary part. It is not the loss of the job that concerns me, while obviously saddening, it is the impact that loss of job will have on the financial stability of me, my parents and grandparents and the very presence of bricks and mortar around them. To say the prospect of that is not causing stress would be an understatement. Even those trainees "tagged" to airlines face uncertainty. A few trainees in that very boat and towards the end of their training have had their job offers effectively revoked with a "we don't need you just yet, but hopefully soon" in response. That is rather obvious given no airlines are flying to the volume they once were, but it is a stark reminder that not even a conditional offer is 100% assured.
* Back to a recent day we took flying for granted *
I'll move away from the end-goal for now and more to the start of the process. The flying schools.
Where the flying schools are concerned they're good at what they do at the point of delivery - which is churning out standardised commercial pilots. However, prior to you walking through their doors for day one of training the likes of L3Harris, CAE, SkyBourne etc are large scale marketing machines with flashy websites, brochures and promotional video material. I'm probably sounding hypocritical here given I trained at one of these academies and helped them with various open days, but that is not my intention. My intention is to say that flying academies are businesses. They need your money to survive much in the way airlines need passengers to do the same. They're also pretty damn expensive. If you sign the dotted lines in times of uncertainty like this you're like to be agreeing to a payment schedule of 'x' amount per month. Have you considered how coronavirus impacts these schools too?
The two meter social distances rules, of the UK, would make it impossible to teach you in a classroom as you'd not be able to fit a full class in a room given such spacing. In light training aircraft you basically sit on top of one another and so that's out of the question too. From the simulator perspective, you'd be in a confined space with two other people for up to 4 hours at a time too. Once again, ruled out. These combined items are going to impact a flying schools throughput. There are going to be knock on delays to training programs as a result. Some flying schools are now doing remote ground school teaching so to keep up with their ground school schedules. However, I know from my own experience the value that a classroom environment provides and it truly can't be replaced.
In joining a larger flying academy now, in the midst of this crisis, you could potentially be paying thousands per month for very little return in the short term. The stated 18 - 20 month programs are also likely now unrealistic and may take far beyond this. Could you afford living expenses throughout any coronavirus related delay to which flight schools would claim "force majeure"? Certainly lots of food for thought. Is "flight training" even an essential activity in the midst of this virus, especially where the governments are concerned?
So in summary, the industries in a bad place and we've no way of knowing when things will return to normal. Pilots and crew are taking pay cuts, and even unpaid leave. Some airlines are seeking government help and might not survive a lengthy delay to normal service resuming. Job losses and airlines scaling back their operations can't be ruled out. Flying schools will likely still entice new applicants although chances are their published training programs will now be heavily impacted by associated lock-down and social distancing policies.
Back in 2016 I was so keen to jump in the deep end that it would've pained me to get this reality check - had Covid-19 existed then. However, knowing what I know now and just how expensive and stressful the process was in normal times I'd be inclined to strongly recommend you wait out the storm. If you've wanted to be a pilot for however long prior to this then that passion and dream won't go away anytime soon. It'll certainly outlive the coronavirus. As will the industry for that matter too. It's highly unlikely aviation as a whole will simply die out as it's far too engrained in modern society. However, the aviation landscape may well change significantly. Delaying any decisions on flight training for perhaps two to three months, or however long it takes to see this market start to recover could well be the difference in you gaining a true return on your investment at a lower risk.
I at this point would like to hope you found this post an insightful read. It's a pretty gloomy world out there right now and I appreciate me moaning about an industry like aviation is major "first world problems" compared with the impact of coronavirus on well-being and health, but I wanted to share my two cents to the audience of this blog so to provide a fair view on what's what.
Just remember that aviation will live on, airlines will still exist and pilots will still be needed. I'm not advising you wait months or years, I'm just suggesting you wait a short enough time to understand what this Coronavirus means for our world and global economies. A wise pilot once said to me: "There's never a good time to start training, there's only a good time to finish". So if it's not Coronavirus it'll be something else to put you off or cause uncertainty - perhaps Breixt? - but I truly mean it when I say the uncertainty at the moment for everyone in this industry is crazy. Don't expose yourself to too great a risk right in this very moment.
I trust you, your family and any loves ones are keeping safe,
Until next time,