Thursday, March 19, 2020

Dispatch from the Front: Flying in a Pandemic

Yesterday I finished my eighth day of flying out of the past eleven, and to say it's been a bit crazy would be an understatement. The travel industry, having endured the lost decade of the 2000s following 9/11 and finally regaining its footing, is being thrown back into disarray. Entire fleets of aircraft are being grounded and aircrews are being asked to take leave without pay or are being furloughed outright. Several airlines have already ceased operations.

To those of us who lived through 9/11 and its aftermath, this all seems eerily familiar. In a few short weeks we've gone from celebrating a new widebody captain bid (my wife) to investigating how to secure a new home equity line of credit. We'll be fine, but to the new kids who are experiencing their first major industry disruption, I say welcome to the lifeboat party! You will find that an airline career is really just a game of Chutes and Ladders writ large.

The first change I noted back on March 8th was that my commute flight to work was wide open. On a plane which usually has less than ten open seats, there were over a hundred empties. In fact, for those hardy souls who are still out there commuting to or from work by plane, social distancing will be a breeze on empty planes. My flight home from Chicago last night had perhaps a half a dozen passengers and my good friends over at American gave me a first class seat. I felt the thrill of an adrenaline junkie by ordering a glass of water.

Once at work, things seemed more normal. Our first two legs, a Cancun roundtrip, actually had pretty good loads. At the earliest stages of the crisis, it seems that bargaining or denial held sway, making vacationers reluctant to abandon already paid for accommodations. This view rapidly gave way to a desire to not be stuck at a vacation destination should airline service be curtailed, or the fear of becoming sick while away from home. This was evidenced by our last trip, to the Dominican Republic, which carried only a few dozen intrepid souls down, but was full coming home.

Resigned to Illness

Pilots, by their nature, routinely employ a certain insouciance, or gallows humor, when referencing the inherent risks in aviation. Failing to check the terrain charts could "ruin your whole day", or a statement like "it's better to die than to screw up on the radio" has been known to be overheard in a ready room or two. Tied up in this sentiment is a certain fatalism, but also confidence in one's ability to avoid the fate of someone who "bought the farm", even though an outcome might have little to do with ability and more with just lady luck.

These sentiments are in some ways a simple defense mechanism used to ease the knowledge of being at risk. Now that aircrew are being stalked by an unseen menace by virtue of being at work, this defense mechanism has been repurposed from mitigating aviation risks to those of catching the virus. It seemed that most of the aircrew I've spoken to over the past several weeks are resigned to the idea of coming down with the virus regardless of their actions to stay healthy.

Oh, we're all still washing our hands and making herculean efforts to not touch our faces, but we also realize that commercial aircraft, especially with dozens of switches in the cockpit, are flying Petri dishes. From waiting in line at security, to the jet bridge, to sitting in proximity to other people for hours on end, opportunities to pick up a viral hitch hiker seem manifest. Reports that the virus can be spread by simple breathing near an infected individual do little to allay this fatalism.

And why do the TSA agents need to touch everyone's ID? I used to tell my kiddos to look with their eyes, not their hands. Yuck.

Ten Cities in Eleven Days

My last eleven days of flying included seven domestic cities, three international destinations, and overnights in six hotels. I feel perfectly fine, but let's assume that the virus can be contracted and spread for a few days before symptoms appear. Should this have happened, then I've probably left quite a wide wake of disease behind. Could I have just called in sick and stayed home? Sure, but someone else would've been tapped to fly the trip. Agree or not with whether airlines should be shut down, at least some commercial flights will continue to operate.

The economic pain imposed by this event is going to be far reaching and deep. Unknown is how long lasting it will be. One analogy I overheard is that the economy is not sick per se, but rather has been put into a medical coma until the crisis passes. I'm hopeful that this is true, though it is also possible that after being forced by the virus to conduct more business online and through teleconferencing, business travel may never recover to pre-pandemic levels.

Airlines, of course, are large corporations and do have resources and credit lines to weather the storm, unlike many smaller businesses such as restaurants and hotels. I've been reliably informed that aircrew are the only guests in some of our crew hotels and the only business keeping the doors open. Food venues have been ordered closed which is a problem for overnighting aircrew who have no other ability to eat as my airline serves no meals.

9/11 Redux?

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a gut punch to the airline industry which didn't fully get back on its feet until ten years later. Career progression was on hold for many for what is now called the "lost decade". This pandemic has already caused a deeper loss of revenue for the industry than did the brief industry shutdown in the wake of the attacks. When and how a recovery will unfold is an open question.

Life changing or life delaying setbacks are emblematic of a career in commercial aviation. My first officer this trip was lamenting the unfolding events, and while he maintained a great attitude, I could sense his frustration. Let's call him Fred.

Fred has a less conventional background than many first officers with whom I fly. Somewhat of a bon vivant, he grew up on St Thomas and splits his time between the islands, a condo in Chicago, and a farm in the Carolinas. He spent some time on commercial fishing boats where he picked up enough Spanish to be useful in flirting with the waitresses in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. A story he tells of bartering with the crew of a Japanese fishing boat in the south Pacific for some soy sauce for the Korean sailors on his boat was quite entertaining.

He was a captain at his previous airline before it was merged with my airline and as a result he was bounced back to the right seat. Due to several career detours, he is older than I am and is close to having seniority to move back to the left seat for his few remaining years before mandatory retirement. This will now likely be delayed. The fallout for him is real.

Our flight attendants on the trip seemed to have varying degrees of stress due to the crisis. One of them, Bev, seemed to take it all in stride. She has a knack for poker apparently and has played semi-professionally. She was in a good mood having won about $400 in the resort casino, about half being Fred's. I don't gamble and was safely in bed when all this transpired. Tracey, on the other hand, was much more junior and had just purchased a condo. She was quite concerned about financial events though not as much about the virus itself, which makes sense as she is young and hale.

Call Dispatch

Upon arrival at the airport on our last leg home, I received a message to call our dispatch before departing. Given the choice of using the gate agent's dirty and broken screen mobile phone or activating international calling on my phone, I chose the latter.

The control tower at Chicago's Midway airport had been shut down due to three workers there being diagnosed with the virus. The airport was still operating but without a control tower. Think of an intersection where the traffic light goes out. You treat it like a four-way stop sign, but not nearly as much traffic can pass. It's just as safe. I had to get a briefing by a chief pilot concerning the different procedures.

The flight and landing were uneventful, but traffic had been severely restricted due to the closed tower. We were the only aircraft moving on the entire airport after landing. This also meant that my flight home had been cancelled. A quick check on FlightView revealed both an American and United flight were still operating from O'Hare to my hometown.

A Useful Prophylactic

James was my Uber driver from Midway to O'Hare. As I was in uniform, the subject of aviation came up. It turns out that he had been a flight attendant with ATA airlines for 20 years before that airline ceased operations. Family obligations forced his departure from the industry, but he remembered his years fondly. His income from driving has recently fallen drastically as a result of the pandemic. He has applied for a position with Target and has an upcoming interview. I wished him luck.

James was an older gentleman, and I asked if the virus concerned him. He assured me that drinking hot water would serve as an internal cleanse to remove any virus infection. Furthermore, using a hair dryer on the face and nostrils would then remove any offending virus thus ensuring safe passage in our newly infectious landscape. 

The more you know...