How one airline captain is coping with being grounded because of the coronavirus

Mar 26, 2020

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Capt. Chris Brady, 55, is a longtime commercial airline pilot, with some 15,000 hours under his belt. He flies for a large European low-cost carrier. He typically jets around Europe for four days of duty, followed by two to three days off at home in the south of England.

Or at least he did, until last week.

“I’ve been asked to take three months of unpaid leave,” he said. “But if it keeps the airline afloat, we’ll all do it.”

It’s all part of the massive disruption to the airline industry because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The consequences have just started to hit the United Kingdom hard; most flights are grounded. Brady’s last was Wednesday, a two-sector flight out and back between a London-area airport and Malaga, repatriating tourists back to the U.K. from Spain.

“It was a full load and the passengers were so grateful and relieved,” he said in a phone interview. “Of course, there was an edge to it, as we were exposing ourselves to the virus just by operating the flight. We know that the air in the plane is drawn from the outside and fresh every three minutes, but in the back of your mind you’re thinking about those three minutes. The cabin crew are in much closer contact with passengers, so my heart goes out to them.”

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On top of it all, it wasn’t a stress-free flight.

“About 30 minutes in, we received an ACARS message,” Brady said, referring to a message from the airline printed out on the flight deck. “It informed us that the Balearic Islands had closed and that one of our alternate airport, Palma, was also closed. And then 30 minutes passed, [and] we heard on the radio ATC informing a flight to Morocco that the country had closed its airspace, and ‘What do you want to do, captain?'”

The captain of that flight said he would confer with his company and sort it out.

“That’s two instances in short order, and you just feel like the whole of Europe is closing down on you,” Brady said.

Captain Chris Brady in the cockpit of an Airbus A320 at 40,000 feet (Courtesy of Chris Brady)
Captain Chris Brady in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 at 40,000 feet (Courtesy of Chris Brady)

Back on terra firma, there wasn’t much relief, either.

“In the past week, there have been lots of changes. Everything has been falling like dominoes. Domestic flying ground to a halt, and of course the Prime Minister put the whole country on lockdown. So now everything is grounded,” he said.

It’s not the first time Brady has dealt with economic adversity in his flying career. He started flying while at Liverpool University, in a University Air Squadron, a training unit of the Royal Air Force. He then decamped to Florida for three months to get his civilian pilot’s licenses. But when he got back to the U.K. in the early 1990s, a recession had hit and no airline jobs were to be had, Brady said.

Instead, he became a flying instructor and pilot examiner, amassing some 3,000 hours in small piston aircraft, much more than most. To jumpstart his career, he decided to pay for a Boeing 737 type rating out of pocket, which is atypical. The £12,000 course was equivalent to his yearly salary. The airline offering the course recognized his skill and hired him as a Boeing 737 pilot. He eventually became a training captain with British Midland, a now-defunct airline. (That’s where his Boeing 737 Technical Site took root). Next, he found his way to a small 20-plane startup as a direct-entry captain. That startup has now grown by leaps and bounds. (He’d rather keep the name of his employer confidential.) 

But now, that airline isn’t flying. Neither are its pilots, which has serious implications for remaining current. That’s the industry term for keeping your skills fresh; there are strict rules around it.

“In the U.K., you’re required to have a flight every 45 days, along with the six-month simulator check, and every two years, a line check,” Brady said. “But now, with the halt of operations, even the training captains risk going out of currency.”

Airlines will likely have a ramp-up period to bring pilots back up to currency, possibly based on their number of flight hours, Brady said. New commercial airline pilots in Europe will typically start with 200 hours of actual flying time, coupled with a type rating in their airline’s aircraft of choice — most often a Boeing 737 or an Airbus A320, the two most widely sold jetliners.

“My advice to the first officers is to keep in touch with the books and manuals. I imagine many of them are worried if they will be re-employed at all after this passes. If we enter a recession there will be less flying. And in the airlines, it’s a last in, first out rule,” Brady said. “I imagine many are dreadfully worried. It’s awful. Now, pilots are not going to be the worst off in this economy. But new pilots will be quite stressed, what with £100,000 of training debt around their necks.”

Related: More than half of global airlines could ‘die’ without aid

Even senior and well-paid captains like him have to worry about finances.

“I’ve been thinking about belt tightening now with the prospect of no income for three months and maybe longer. So, no unnecessary expenditures,” he said.

So what does he do with his time? Brady is now tending to long-neglected DIY projects and tweaking the Boeing 737 site he runs.

“The sun is shining and I’m painting my fence,” he said. It’s the most time he’s had off in his career — except for an injury where he “once put a chainsaw through my leg.”

I didn’t ask Capt. Brady for the details. But for an airline pilot, an extended ground halt may be just as painful as that injury.

Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand and a marketing consultant to airlines, none of which are cited in this story.

Featured photo: the cockpit of an Airbus A320neo, by JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images

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