Up in the air: Pilots grounded by Covid-19 face a turbulent future

Aer Lingus first officer Alice Farrell. Photograph: Alan Betson

Alice Farrell, an Aer Lingus first officer, a co-pilot, has flown just twice this year: from Dublin to Chicago on New Year’s Day and, on May 6th, from Dublin to Munich and on to South Carolina.

There were just 15 passengers on the January 1st flight to the US and none on this month’s flights; the plane was transporting a cargo of car parts. Farrell says she has never been happier to secure a day’s work on both occasions. Both trips were valuable flying time for the Dubliner.

Farrell, who is 28 and from Rathfarnham, is one of the many casualties of an industry devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. She is among hundreds of Irish pilots grounded by travel restrictions who have no idea when or even if the industry will return to pre-pandemic normality.

It is highly frustrating. It feels like you are going a step back. Having become specialised in one particular industry, I am now back in a pool competing for jobs with college leavers who are 22 and 23 years old

When she recently sought another job – to pick up extra work and to keep herself busy while she awaits a standby call to fly – the supermarket manager was flummoxed as to why an airline pilot wanted a low-paid job in retail.

“He couldn’t marry the two: why would a pilot be interviewing for a job stacking shelves or at the tills?” she says. “I was politely told mid-interview that they didn’t see how I would fit and kept reminding me: ‘Are you aware this is a minimum-wage job?’”

Despite having skills and qualifications that cost a fortune to obtain, Farrell is finding it hard to secure a job outside aviation.

“It is highly frustrating. It feels like you are going a step back. Having become specialised in one particular industry, I am now back in a pool competing for jobs with college leavers who are 22 and 23 years old. It is not where I saw myself heading into my 30s,” she says.

“I never saw myself as someone that would end up like this. Mentally, for me, going out and working, even for a minimum wage, is a better option than sitting around doing nothing.”

Aer Lingus first officer Alice Farrell. Photograph: Alan Betson
Aer Lingus first officer Alice Farrell. Photograph: Alan Betson

The pandemic has led to far fewer planes in Irish skies. Air traffic fell by more than 700,000 flights over the past 12 months, equal to all air traffic handled in 1998, according to the Irish Aviation Authority. There were 396,568 flights handled in the year to April – a drop of 63 per cent. Dublin Airport recorded 2,746 flights in April, a decrease of 86 per cent on the same month in 2019.

It has been another turbulent week for the airline industry in a time of Covid. On Monday, Ryanair reported a record annual loss of €815 million as restrictions forced the cancellation of more than 80 per cent of its flights. On Tuesday, Aer Lingus workers in Shannon and Cork were told of possible job losses and major changes as the State’s flag-carrier grapples with the Government’s travel ban.

Weeks after saying that it lost €103 million in the first three months of the year – on top of €361 million lost last year – Aer Lingus said that, to reduce costs, it was permanently closing its cabin crew base at Shannon Airport and temporarily laying off staff at Cork Airport between September and November as the airport closes for planned work on its runway. More than 320 staff are affected by the moves, at least 45 of whom will remain laid off.

These moves make pilots nervous about their futures, but many are being kept on financial life support so the industry can return planes to the skies when they get the green light to take off.

How quickly – and in what numbers they will return in – remains unknown.

Aviation is not like the pubs. We cannot just switch on the taps and order in a bit of stock the next week and get going

Aer Lingus is paying its pilots 50 per cent of their pay and trying to keep as many of them “current” – they need at least three take-offs and three landings every 90 days to meet the requirements of their commercial pilot licences. Ryanair has furloughed its pilots, paying them as they fly, so many have signed up for the State’s Pandemic Unemployment Payment – a dramatic drop in salary. CityJet laid off pilots among 250 redundancies announced last year.

It is the absence of a Government plan for a return of non-essential international travel and the mixed messaging and goalpost-moving from senior politicians that is frustrating many pilots. Taoiseach Micheál Martin said at the start of this month that foreign travel would be possible before August, only for Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to later say not to expect foreign travel until August. This erodes consumer confidence at a time when summer bookings are critical.

A plan laying out details for a phased resumption of international travel was expected to go before Cabinet on Tuesday but was delayed until next week, causing further uncertainty.

“Aviation is not like the pubs. We cannot just switch on the taps and order in a bit of stock the next week and get going. We need months of planning,” says Nic Gammon, an Aer Lingus pilot and co-founder of Recover Irish Aviation, a campaign group pushing for a reopening plan.

Gammon fears that the Government, as an “outlier” in Europe on Covid-19 restrictions, including the strictest quarantine rules for inbound travellers, might “cherry-pick” participation in the EU’s digital green certificate plan to kick-start travel, limiting it to only fully vaccinated people.

He fears the loss of air routes and damage to “connectivity” that is vital long-term for an island nation such as Ireland. “If a proper plan is not put in place, we will be paying for it for a long time to come,” he says.

A near-deserted Dublin Airport
A near-deserted Dublin Airport

More broadly, Irish Air Line Pilots’ Association (Ialpa) president Evan Cullen thinks it “extraordinary” that the Government failed to embrace the report of the expert group, chaired by Prof Mark Ferguson, which recommended a role for rapid antigen Covid-19 testing, a tool Cullen sees as key to restarting air travel. He believes the Government has been “captured by its medical advisers” and goes further, suggesting there has been a “hostility” towards the industry.

“The lack of challenge against the medics has been extraordinary. We are in the risk-management game. We don’t see risk management by Government. We see reactive decision-making and a lack of planning,” he says.

Ryanair captain Jamie McGettigan finds the Government’s contradictory messaging and lack of planning for the industry deeply frustrating. Pilots are required to be “very logical thinkers” for their work, he says, but he sees little logic in this confused approach or in the Covid-19 infection metrics that have been followed to apply restrictions that have damaged his industry.

On a personal level, he has found the uncertainty around what might happen the industry unsettling. He knows of one cash-strapped pilot who is seeking psychological help.

“I was in a dark place a few weeks ago. There is no end in sight. It is like Russian roulette. We don’t fear the bullet; it is the anticipation of not knowing when the fatal bullet will come. That is what is hard for us that there is no end or guidance,” he says.

We have 1,200 members in Ialpa. More than half of them are more or less laid off with little or no employer income

He is sharply critical of the Government’s handling and in particular the stewardship of Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan. “It’s like having a vegan extremist running a McDonald’s restaurant.”

A captain with a decade of flying experience who is now on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, McGettigan says he doesn’t use the term “weekend” anymore as the days blend into each other. Despite this challenging time, he sees himself in “the best worst-case scenario” because of his confidence that Ryanair will be one of the first airlines “to go back” when things reopen.

The unpredictable period ahead is affecting other pilots. “I am a bit lost, really,” says Sean McCarthy, who left a 16-year secure, pensionable job-for-life in the Air Corps three years ago to become a first officer in Aer Lingus.

“I am in my late 30s now, settled down, have a child, have the house and mortgage, and this is the time when you’re supposed to stop thinking about what you’re going to do in life. You are supposed to start concentrating on where you are and your career potential and put in the hard yards now and reap the benefits later on. It is a speed bump I didn’t see coming.”

Dublin-based pilots from CityJet picket outside the company’s headquarters at Swords Business Campus, Co Dublin on June 23rd, 2020. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
Dublin-based pilots from CityJet picket the company’s Dublin headquarters in 2020. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The stop-start pronouncements on the reopening of international travel have been “a regular and consistent slap to people who are depending on this for their livelihoods,” he says.

McCarthy has flown just five return flights this year. Now he is filling his time studying for a master’s and flying a drone for his cousin’s forestry management business. “It’s not the same – not even close,” he says of flying drones.

To supplement depleted incomes, pilots have returned to teaching, medicine, engineering and farming, and have also taken work as delivery van drivers and decorators, says Capt Evan Cullen of Ialpa. Some pilots have found work in supermarkets and delivering fast food, and even with the HSE as Covid-19 testers and helping out on the rollout of the vaccines.

“We have 1,200 members. More than half of them are more or less laid off with little or no employer income. The remainder are on between 25 and 30 per cent of pay,” says Capt Cullen.

Others, despite their skills and qualifications, have struggled to find work.

“We are highly qualified but in a fierce niche,” says one experienced, out-of-work pilot who didn’t want to be named. “I have been applying all over the place. We can fly a multimillion-euro jet but we can do f**k-all else.”

Last Friday week, Aer Lingus first officer Kieran O’Regan flew to London and back. Four days later, he was working on the farm of a friend whose father he worked with when he was teenager.

“It is sad to be sitting here on a tractor talking to you with the way it is,” says the 41-year-old pilot from Ladysbridge in east Cork. He gets to fly once a month to remain “current” as a pilot.

“We are now 14 months into it and we are in a worse place now than we were last year because we are facing a second consecutive summer which will be catastrophic for the airline industry.”

Aer Lingus pilot Hayley Scannell, who is now a personal trainer. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Aer Lingus pilot Hayley Scannell, who is now a personal trainer. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

He laments the fact that Ireland has the most restrictive travel measures in the EU, yet the aviation industry is not being supported as in other EU member states. He and other pilots point to the German government’s support of its flag-carrier Lufthansa with a €9 billion bailout and the £600 million (€696 million) loan from the UK government to Ryanair, an Irish airline, as examples of how other countries are supporting their industry.

On an individual financial level, some pilots are nursing heavy debts. Simon Carruthers, Ialpa’s union rep in Cork, says pilot training can cost “well into six figures” and some are now struggling to make ends meet, as they manage these debts on reduced salaries.

“It is nerve-wracking, to say the least. We are very mindful of trying to keep an eye on each other, staying in contact to make sure we are all doing okay. It’s an unusual pressure,” he says.

Every day you wake thinking I am getting the chop, I am going to be laid off. The industry is virtually on its knees

Hayley Scannell, a 24-year-old first officer at Aer Lingus, borrowed €35,000 from the bank and €25,000 from her grandmother to fund the cost of her flight training.

“It is a great job and financially the pay is great, but it is a massive investment and there are lot of people like me. Now we are struggling,” she says.

She last flew on November 17th last so she will have to return to the simulator and undertake training again before she is allowed back onto the flight deck of an aircraft. “I am grounded. That is my current status,” she says.

She has undertaken a personal training course and works as a fitness instructor from home doing Zoom exercise classes with clients to make money and keep herself occupied. “You have to occupy your mind. It is more for mental stability. Every day you wake thinking I am getting the chop, I am going to be laid off. The industry is virtually on its knees,” she says.

“For a pilot, this is your life, this is your calling, this is what we have always wanted to do,” says Scannell. “I have put my career before everything else – friendships and relationships – that is how much it means to me and it has been taken off me.”