How one airline captain is coping with being grounded because of the coronavirus
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
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.”
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.
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.”
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
Welcome to The Points Guy!
Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.
With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.
- Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
- Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
- Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
- Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
- Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
- Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
- Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
- Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
- Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
- No Foreign Transaction Fees.
- $250 Annual Fee.
- Terms Apply.
- See Rates & Fees