EXCLUSIVE: This pilot left a heartwarming note in the cockpit as the pandemic began; we spoke to him about why
"The light must be at the end of the tunnel."
When Delta Air Lines pilot Chris Dennis wrote that in a note and left it in the flight deck of an Airbus A321, tail number N309DN, the world was a scary place filled with uncertainty.
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It was March 23, 2020, and the entire globe was shutting down. Lockdowns were being instituted across cities and states, schools were scrambling to figure out how to teach young children over video chat and offices everywhere were sending employees to work from home.
Dennis, a first officer with Delta who has been flying with passenger airlines for 25 years, has made it through his share of airline industry crises: 9/11, airline bankruptcies, the 2008 financial crash. But this was different.
"It was just the enormity of it," he told TPG. "Not only were the airlines stopping, but our personal lives were stopping and being thrown into turmoil.
Just 331,431 people would board commercial flights in the United States on that day in March, down from about 2.5 million on the same day in 2019. Conflicting guidance said it could just be a short, two-week shutdown to "flatten the curve," but even then, we knew it could be longer — even if we had no idea how long we would actually be quarantined at home.
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Dennis was tasked with ferrying the A321 to an aircraft storage facility at Victorville, California (VCV), where the plane would sit for 14 days before reemerging as the world began to reopen. Of course, that's not how things worked out.
Instead, the aircraft — listed as ship 3009 in Delta's fleet inventory system — stayed parked at Victorville for 435 days, sealed up against damage from sand, weather or insects, slowly being stripped of parts for other aircraft needing maintenance (lending parts is a common practice for grounded aircraft).
Dennis said that he decided to leave a note on the flight deck after he landed at Victorville, when it suddenly hit him that things were likely going to be different for a long time.
"I thought to myself, 'it would be interesting to know when this airplane was going to be out of here, because I don't think it's going to be two weeks or four weeks,'" Dennis told TPG. "And I wanted to leave something for that crew as a timeline. You know, with the amount of effort going into mobilizing an entire fleet to these storage locations, I thought this was really going to be a while."
"Whenever the pilot got on that airplane to pull it out of storage, I thought there's got to be something with the date in here," he added. "And then they'd say 'oh my gosh, that was three months ago, that's crazy.' Or six months ago. I never thought it would be 435 days later."
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It was on the 436th day that First Officer Nick Perez stepped aboard ship 3009 to bring it back to service.
Dennis kept working and flying through the pandemic, aside from three months that he took a voluntary leave of absence to help the airline try and avoid furloughs. The experience was surreal, he said, remembering the time he flew out of New York's usually busy JFK Airport as the only airplane on the departure frequency.
One nicer thing he noticed during those pandemic-era flights, especially when he was in the cabin in between working: "Everyone was polite to each other, super respectful. There was almost like an understanding among the people who were traveling during this time that we were all in this together."
Now, travel is roaring back. Air travel demand has been steadily picking up since March, with total daily passenger counts nearing the 2 million mark. While long-haul international travel remains significantly depressed, domestic and short-haul international travel has generally returned to — and in some cases, exceeded — 2019 levels. Most of this is driven by leisure demand, but even domestic business travel is on the upswing, months before airlines expected to see any meaningful recovery.
Ship 3009 was returned to service on June 1. Perez was tasked with bringing it back to its base at Delta's Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) hub, where any final maintenance would be performed before the plane began carrying passengers again.
As Perez went through his pre-departure routine, he checked the flight deck tray table and found the note Dennis left behind.
"Hey Pilots. It's March 23rd and we just arrived from MSP. Very chilling to see so much of our fleet here in the desert. If you are here to pick it up, then the light must be at the end of the tunnel. Amazing how fast it changed. Have a safe flight bringing it out of storage!"
Perez had actually seen the note before — Dennis posted a photo of it back when he delivered the plane to VCV, and the photo had gone viral in the aviation community. Dennis said that at the time, he received messages and comments from hundreds of aviation workers all around the world, underscoring the sense of community as the global aviation industry faced unprecedented uncertainty.
For Perez, finding the note made for a special trip back to MSP. Between the two flights, the world has changed in countless ways — some of which we have yet to even realize. Nowhere is that more evident than in the travel and aviation spaces, which faced unprecedented losses and cuts during the pandemic as the normal movement around the world ceased.
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For instance, passenger airlines employed 16% fewer people in April 2021— the latest month tracked by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics — compared to the start of the pandemic in March 2020, largely due to buyouts and early retirements.
Still, furloughs — which were minimal, thanks to the CARES Act — are over, employees are returning from voluntary leaves, airlines are eagerly hiring again, planes are coming back from storage and, most importantly, passengers are vaccinated and returning to the skies.
The light at the end of the tunnel, indeed.