How to Covid-proof your flying career
PUBLISHED: 17:33 18 November 2020 | UPDATED: 17:33 18 November 2020
Lauren Wilson 2020
Representatives from a selection of Approved Training Organisations look forward to the future of Commercial Air Travel and prospects for professional pilots after the Covid 19 pandemic
This edition of our ‘Go Commercial’ feature is published at a time of unusual uncertainty for the aviation industry and, indeed, for the global economy. The pandemic caused by Covid-19, and the related containment measures, have caused large economic contractions in most of the world (the UK for instance seeing its worst economic figures in many decades) and a severe decline in passenger numbers. The long-term consequences of this are very difficult to predict. What is certain, however, is that this is a very appropriate time for all aspiring commercial pilots to make their career path ‘Covid-proof’, and to plan for the most likely future scenarios.
The future that will emerge at the end of the pandemic will, most likely, be somewhere between two extreme scenarios. In the best-case scenario, the aviation industry will go back to the long-term trend of strong growth that preceded Covid-19 within roughly three years. Although not extremely likely, this is a possibility not to be discounted, as the industry has shown a surprising degree of resilience during past crises. Between 1970 and 2018, passenger numbers doubled roughly every ten years, and the rate of growth of the aviation industry has been remarkably stable, with only brief and occasional pauses. Indeed, while the aviation industry seems to face serious downturns every number of years, a less appreciated fact is that the strong growth rate of the sector has been one of the most stable features of the global economy since WWII.
On the other end of the spectrum, the worst-case scenario would see instead a significant long-term impact on air travel due to Covid-19. This scenario, although not very likely, could occur if medical advances were slow in treating Covid-19, if there was a general loss of trust in the safety, in health terms, of air travel, and if the economic fallout of the pandemic persisted for a prolonged time in areas like the USA, China or Europe.
Most likely, the future scenario that will actually emerge out of the pandemic will be somewhere in between those two extremes. Eugene Moriarty, Director of Flight Ops, Airline Academy, L3Harris, for instance, points to industry forecasts which “agree that the commercial aviation industry will recover back to the 2019 levels by around 2024”. This would mean that “with the lead time to train pilots being 18-24 months, cadets who begin their training now will qualify at a time when the industry expects a strong growing demand for pilots again”.
Obviously, which future exactly will emerge from the pandemic will depend on a very large number of variables that are well beyond the realm of the aviation industry. However, we can already observe two Covid-related changes in our sector that, though not enormous, will most likely stay in the long-term, even after the pandemic is over.
‘Zoom effect’ and point-to-point charters
The first visible change is what some economists call the ‘Zoom effect’ (from the name of the video meeting app). With the imposition of lockdown measures around the world millions of professionals were prevented for months from flying, and started meeting online instead of meeting in person. It turns out that, for quite a few of those individuals (many of whom would usually buy expensive business class tickets) this created a ‘sticky’ habit and permanently reduced their desire to fly. In the words of a Goldman Sachs analyst reported by CNBC, the industry will “lose a good chunk of the jet demand that would have been associated with business travel. Our base case is you lose somewhere around two to three million barrels per day of [jet fuel]”. While the effect of this may not be very large in absolute terms, it may however affect disproportionately those legacy airlines (like British Airways) whose profits derive primarily from business class tickets. In other words, if the ‘Zoom effect’ turns out to be strong, it may be more difficult to secure a pilot job with business oriented legacy airlines, if that is your primary goal.
The second Covid-related change that is likely to stay, is an increased interest in chartering point-to-point private aircraft. Among the schools that we surveyed, L3Harris, Caledonian Advanced Pilot Training and Flying Time Aviation all highlighted explicitly this sector as a promising one for current and future growth. The reasons for this change are simple: airline travel often requires taking connecting flights through a busy airport hub, a scenario which increases the likelihood of Covid infection for a passenger. In addition, chartering a private aircraft means that the cabin is shared only with family or friends, further reducing the risk of contagion. If public health was to remain a going concern for years to come, then it is likely that private air chartering may see sustained growth, and possibly create a customer base with ‘sticky habits’ that would remain even after the disappearance of Covid-19. This would mean more jobs with air charter companies, where the flying is by definition more flexible and, as a pilot, you could for instance easily be re-routed mid-flight to an airfield you have never flown into.
In assessing future scenarios, one additional useful piece of evidence is the behaviour of the industry during difficult times in the past. Here aspiring pilots can find very comforting data, as the aviation sector has shown a surprising level of resilience even when faced with ‘perfect storm’ crises. “The airline industry has historically encountered very challenging circumstances,” says Richard Conachey of Atlantic Flight Training Academy. “For example, fuel shortages in the 70s, widespread financial recessions in the 80s and early 90s and significant disruption following [the terrorist attacks of] September 11 . On every occasion, it has quickly recovered and thrived.” The data on this are very clear. The two 1970s fuel shock crises and the 2001 terrorist attacks, for instance, were events that affected the global economy quite badly, and the aviation industry even more deeply. However, the numbers show that in the 1970s the aviation sector actually never stopped growing year-on-year. And in 2001 the effects of the attacks (which saw the entire US airline industry grounded for a few days, a first in history) lasted for only one year, and by 2003 the sector had returned to growth.
Climate change and autonomous aircraft
While Covid obviously is the big topic of 2020, aspiring pilots should not lose sight of the other trends that pre-existed the pandemic, and that will likely affect the health of aviation businesses in the future. Climate change, for instance, continues to be a threat for the industry. In 2019 Sweden recorded a very unusual contraction in air travel, the first example in history of ‘flight shaming’ affecting the number of airline passengers in a country. Another potential threat for pilot jobs is the rise of autonomous aircraft. Experimentation continues in this field and, if the travelling public became comfortable with the idea of flying with no pilot onboard, this could have serious repercussions fifteen or twenty years down the road, especially if aviation authorities were open to ‘liberalise’ this sector.
Brexit is a further issue to consider: not necessarily a hurdle to employment, it will however require British commercial pilots flying for European airlines to hold an EASA licence. (The European market is projected to be healthy, particularly for low-cost carriers and private charter companies.) Alex O’loughlin of Flying Time Aviation, for instance, highlights the historical business strength of European budget airlines and their attractiveness as employers: “The majority of [their] flights are short-haul and so those with EASA licences are most likely to secure a rôle with a low-cost carrier that flies short-haul. The business jet market also has positive growth projections, in Europe specifically.”
And while aspiring pilots should obviously consider threats to the industry, a realistic assessment must also take into account that the global economy is on a long-term trend of fairly robust growth. In particular China, the second largest economy in the world, is progressively turning more and more into a consumer economy, following an explicit plan laid out by its government. This means that the second largest economy in the world is likely to continue to grow fairly strongly for at least a few more decades, and that should have a ‘pull’ effect on the global economy and on air travel demand globally.
Work on your physical and mental fitness
Besides an analysis of the market, the most important thing to do for an aspiring pilot, however, is to assess their motivation, and prepare at best for a fun but demanding career. In fact, if you have a very strong passion for flying, all of the previous economic considerations have little importance for you, since the enjoyment of flying will be a pay-back of almost unlimited value. This is probably the single most consistent response that we received from the flight schools we surveyed: ‘follow your dream’.
Several flight schools, in fact, highlighted that coping with the ups and downs of the industry is itself part of the job of being a commercial pilot. In the words of Ray Foran of the National Flight Centre, “Work on the self-management skills essential to maintaining your physical, mental and social wellbeing. It is less important for potential pilots to speculate over what industry hotspots will arise, than it is for them to work energetically to develop the sets of skills and attitudes which are most sought-after in any era: flawless flying technique, deep technical knowledge, strong abilities in leadership, teamwork, and interpersonal communication, and an unremitting focus on safety. In our experience that kind of pilot will always be in demand.”
Having faced difficulties, including employment and financial constraints, can in fact show up on your CV as a point of strength. Alex O’loughlin of Flying Time Aviation says, “Never give up on your dream−we meet pilots who have been thrown curveballs in life or thought it would never be possible to secure the funds to make their training possible. We are continually inspired by their stories and resilience and how they made it possible against all odds.”
Flying currency and finances
So, working on yourself is the first lesson. The second one, obviously, is selecting carefully your flight school (or schools if going modular). Here, for employment purposes, it is useful if a school has a formal link to one or more airlines, like a cadet program. However, keep in mind that schools that do not have such formal links also manage to place their graduates with reputable airlines: what really matters is you and your skills, not simply the school you come from.
Another fundamental issue to consider is how to fund your training, which may affect the speed of your training and the timing of graduation. Some schools have formal agreements with banks to help you finance your studies, while others do not – in this case getting a loan is likely to be more difficult, and somewhat of a lengthy process. If you find yourself short of cash and unable to secure a large loan, however, do not consider yourself out of the game. Quite a few schools accept course payments in instalments and, in the most limiting circumstances, you can always opt to go modular, meaning that you get your licences in steps, only if and when you have the financial means to train for them. This is a slightly less desirable option in terms of CV, as most airlines tends to prefer pilots coming from an integrated course, but keep in mind that airlines are full of captains who trained on a modular route.
What is most important, however, is that you plan your finances in order to achieve two specific goals when you graduate with your flight licences. The first goal is to keep a reasonable level of flying currency at all times, even when the pilot job market is completely frozen: if you are very short of cash, try to budget a short SEP flight every other week (this should cost you about £1,500 a year), and integrate this with regular study and training on a home-based flight simulator. The second goal is to strongly freshen up your currency when airlines start to hire again. Ideally, in the three months preceding an interview and sim check, you would want to fly several sorties similar to the latest level of training you received (for instance, real ME/IR flights in addition to AQC jet simulator sessions). This would probably cost you about £5,000 in the UK, but keep in mind that some schools (like Skyborne) offer free refresher simulator sessions to their graduates.
If there is one word to summarize how an aspiring pilot should react to the uncertainty that Covid-19 has created, that word would be flexibility. Try to keep your goals flexible. One year ago, a jet airline job was a realistic prospect for a newly qualified commercial pilot. Now, you may need to be open to other possibilities, including not immediately finding a job but keeping your flying current with free flying at aeroclubs by towing gliders and flying skydivers. In fact, Bristol Ground School advocates flexibility not only in your goals but also in your type of training: ‘Study modular, if you can, to give you flexibility. This will also allow you to determine the speed of your training and to spread the cost. Training using this route will also enable you to qualify once the industry starts to pick up again. Another bonus of this route is that you can delay parts of your training if you need to.’
Another type of flexibility comes from looking beyond pilot jobs altogether, but still within the industry. The drone sector, for instance, continues to see a healthy pace of growth and some schools see this as an opportunity. Skyborne, for instance, was the first to launch a ‘unique partnership with Flyby Technology, the leader in UK drone training and operation. Newly qualified pilots from Skyborne’s UKCAA/EASA Integrated and Combined Modular ATPL programmes will be hand-selected to join Flyby Technology as commercial drone pilots, completing the company’s Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) training course.’ This means that, while waiting for a flying job, you can still exercise and develop your airmanship and experience, in a field that is projected to keep growing considerably.
In summary, while 2020 is an uncertain time to get a job in aviation, you should still try to keep a long-term perspective on your career, considering it more like a marathon than a 100m dash. Do your homework, make informed choices and prepare carefully for the jobs that await you. But keep in mind that, if your passion is flying, you will not go wrong, no matter what happens. As the old saying goes ‘Choose a job you like, and you will never have to work’.