Pilots Grounded by COVID Tell Us What They Are Doing With Their Lives

“People look at our license and it’s like, ‘well everyone has a driver’s license,’” one laid-off pilot said.
March 24, 2021, 8:37am
Planes grounded
An aerial view shows airplanes parked at the Toulouse-Blagnac international airport in Blagnac, southern France, on March 12, 2021. Photo: STEPHANE MAHE / POOL / AFP

Since the pandemic shut down global travel, more than 40 airlines have gone bankrupt, and the number of international flights has dropped by more than half. Even with vaccine distribution ramping up, it is unlikely travel will return to 2019 levels until 2024, according to the International Air Transport Association. 

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The fallout has left thousands of pilots out of work, forcing early-career professionals to put aside their aviation dreams and consider different careers while they wait for the industry to bounce back.

Seeing mass layoffs at other airlines, even grounded pilots who are still employed have taken up side hustles in preparation for the worst-case scenario. They’re selling artisan condiments on Instagram, importing wine and starting boating companies or interior design firms.

Simon, a pilot still employed in Hong Kong – who like most people interviewed for this story preferred to withhold his full name and company details to discuss career options openly – has used the extra hours to get better at photography, a longtime hobby.

“I wanted to set myself up so that if something was to happen… my ability to stay in Hong Kong and have a salary wouldn’t be dependent on my work at the airline,” he told VICE World News.

Simon, a pilot in Hong Kong

Simon, a pilot in Hong Kong, works on his personal passion of photography in his free time. Photo courtesy of Jake S. Thomas

Hailing from a family of creatives, Simon said photography helped him connect with the communities around him, especially when living in new and unfamiliar cities for work. But in March of 2020, as the pandemic spread around the world and he remained in Hong Kong, he decided to pursue it in a serious way, building up a portfolio that spans portraiture to product and food shots. “Before COVID happened the longest I’d ever been in Hong Kong was three weeks without leaving,” he said. 

One of the obstacles for pilots transitioning to a new job is that employers fail to grasp how many aspects of their profession are relevant in other industries, according to George, a 23-year-old first officer.

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In addition to numerous exams, they have training in management, leadership and communications, among other areas that are subject to regular assessments. “People look at our license and it’s like, ‘well everyone has a driver’s license,’” George said.

He is now a delivery driver for UK-based supermarket chain Waitrose. But flying is his first love. Originally from Birmingham, George has wanted to fly since he was two years old, inspired by his grandfather, who was a Pathfinder’s navigator in World War II. 

“People look at our license and it’s like, ‘well everyone has a driver’s license.’”

While his friends went to university after high school, he worked in a bar for minimum wage to save as much money as he could for flight school, which can costs upwards of $175,000. What he couldn’t save himself he got through loans.

He was recruited by one of the UK’s largest legacy carriers almost two years ago, but in 2020 George only flew 200 hours, when he should have done up to 800. Although his airline reported signs of revived demand around summer and Easter, it wasn’t enough to save his job. As a low-ranking pilot in an industry that traditionally made cuts based on hierarchy from the bottom up, George was first to go. 

He still has an “undying” passion for flight, but said the pandemic has highlighted how unpredictable the aviation industry can be as a whole. If he had a degree to fall back on, things might be easier, he added. 

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“It can be all smiles and roses for six months, and then something happens or the industry changes or an outlook changes or company’s forecasts change and the whole industry on a whole continent could just stop,” he said.

Many pilots are choosing to set up their own businesses instead of convincing a potential employer of their worth. Joseph Hannaby, for example, served in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) as a helicopter pilot for ten years.

“I wanted to be a racing car driver,’’ said Hannaby, who is in his mid-30s. “When I heard about being an RAF pilot, I thought that sounded like the next best thing.” He joined Jet2, the British low-cost carrier as a first officer in 2017 and was in the process of changing airline jobs when the pandemic hit. His contract was terminated at the new company in March before he’d even started. A friend of his who had also served with the RAF was in a similar situation. They decided to brainstorm ideas.

They soon came across the company My Hotel Bike in Amsterdam, which places branded bikes in hotel lobbies, manages and rents them to guests for a set period. They were looking to franchise their concept, and loved the idea of working with two ex-RAF guys – known for their operational efficiency. With people cautious about public transport and with large investments in cycling infrastructure in London, there’s been ample opportunity for a cycling culture to rival the continent. They’ve since partnered with a number of hotel brands in London, and are enthusiastic about the new venture.

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“We’ve burnt enough fuel in our lifetimes,” Hannaby joked.

Former pilots Harry Tompkins and Erik Schmitz, who were also laid off at the end of 2020, are in the process of developing a travel app that would make it easy to find a like-minded buddy to travel around the world with. Their former colleague, Tom Hopkinson, has co-launched a new click and collect food delivery venture called Kesto.

Pilot Tom Hopkinson (left) stands with business colleague Edward Kesterson

Pilot Tom Hopkinson (left) stands with business colleague Edward Kesterson. Hopkinson co-launched a new click and collect food delivery venture called Kesto. Photo: Emma Russell

In Hong Kong, which confirmed its first case of the coronavirus shortly after mainland China did, pilots were impacted even earlier. First Officers Matt Wilson and Charlie Craggs haven’t flown since January and February last year, after the outbreak forced Cathay Dragon airlines to ground most of its planes. The following months felt like a waiting game as countries closed their borders. They were both laid off when their company Cathay Pacific slashed their Dragon brand along with more than 5,900 jobs.

Since then, Charlie – an Australian pilot that completed Cathay’s cadet scheme and had been flying in Hong Kong for three years – has started training for a job as a medical courier, transporting precious IVF products — frozen embryos, sperm, eggs and cells — around the world on commercial planes. He’s not piloting the aircraft but it will get him in the air in some capacity, while he figures out what to do next.

Charlie Craggs

Charlie Craggs, a former first officer with Cathay Dragon, rides a bicycle. Photo courtesy of Jake S. Thomas

But losing a job for Matt, who had spent three and a half years at Cathay Dragon after relocating from the UK where he had been working for Ryanair, has meant losing his life in Hong Kong as well. Without permanent residency, he was forced to move back to Edinburgh and live with his parents.

Instead of wallowing at the hand fate dealt him, Matt joined forces with his younger brother to set up a gardening venture. He now spends his days studying horticulture; the best way to care for plants, and how they change through the seasons. “I don’t know if it’s my age or whether it’s the actual subject,” Matt said, “but I’m actually finding it a lot tougher than I did when I was learning to fly.” 

They’re out in all weather, which has been labor intensive. But, he says, “it’s quite therapeutic, especially in these tough times.”