What if you couldn’t go to work, but your employer wouldn’t furlough you, and therefore can’t kick back and relax? That’s precisely the situation many pilots face around the world, particularly in Europe, and it’s only one of the many issues. Add in hard feelings between airlines and pilots after recent labor disputes, and it’s all out chaos for some airlines and their pilots…

Uncertainty and odd feelings are everywhere in the travel industry, not just with pilots. No one knows precisely when world health concerns will be alleviated, and when the traveling public can safely take to the skies again. Even when the all clear is given, there’s no telling what demand will do either.

For pilots, there’s an added level of oddity beyond what most in the travel industry face.

Unlike many travel industry employees, including cabin crew, most pilots haven’t been furloughed and allowed to take the dogs out for long walks. In many areas, including the UK and Europe, a furlough would bring too long an amount of time before a pilot could return to work, if demand were to rapidly pick up.

It would mean demand without supply, and airlines aren’t willing to chance that.

Yet many pilots make a significant 20-30% portion of their income,or greater from flying pay, and for the most part, most aren’t getting any. For relatively young pilots with massive flight school debts, it’s a real problem.

Making matters more tedious for pilots, regular checks and certifications to keep current aren’t easy to come by, which throws future viability of near term hours into spanner as well.

LINATE, ITALY - CIRCA NOVEMBER, 2017: interior shot of Alitalia Cityliner Embraer ERJ-175STD cockpit.To maintain appropriately stringent flying qualifications globally, pilots must complete a certain number of take offs and landings in various conditions, within a rolling 90 day period. Much of this work can be completed in simulators, but that requires the presence of training captains and other flight deck personnel, and that would mean breaking social distancing rules.

At costs of up to $500 an hour, these simulator scenarios aren’t cheap for airlines without their own training facilities, and as need grows across airlines, it gets even more complicated. Throw in safety concerns about even performing said checks, and pilots are finding the present extremely odd.

To help alleviate pressing concerns the EASA, the governing body of European aviation safety, UK CAA, and US FAA are working with airlines and their pilots to find safe compromises on certification extensions. This may include brief extensions on clean bills of health, licensing renewal or case by case relaxing of sim check requirements, or bureaucratic formalities.

In many cases, pilots are using the time at home to work on physical fitness, mental alertness and to review as many flight procedures as possible. Even a little jaunt with popular simulator games like Infinite Flight can help keep things fresh.

Passenger jet being moved using an aircraft tractor at Heathrow London AirportIn the UK, the government job retention scheme (JRS) would allow airlines to furlough pilots to retain the work force, while still receiving 80% of their pay. It’s effectively “free money” from the government to keep the world as close to pre-pandemic job security as humanly possible.

But furlough would mean pilots would be out of “current”, meaning they couldn’t then operate a flight at the flip of a switch, if demand were to sharply return. British Airways wants to be first out the gates when travel is advisable again, which has created a stalemate with BALPA, the pilot union group and the airline.

And then there’s the other big elephant in the room – travel demand.

Headlines of global airline pilot shortages were everywhere in 2019, but recent industry reports suggest air travel demand may not bounce back fully until 2023, which means a fair portion of the global pilot workforce is at risk in the interim.

When travel rebounds, there will be yet another shift, at least in the beginning. Airlines are rapidly retiring larger aircraft including the Boeing 747 “Queen of the Skies” and super jumbo Airbus A380. This means many pilots will need to retrain, or take additional time away from the actual sky to learn a new aircraft type.

This is common place for pilots, but in a time where simulator slots won’t be readily available, it may take additional time, and time is money for both airline and pilot. At the very least, it’s odd times for airline pilots right now, but then again it’s odd times for everyone.

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