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Words Aloft: Flying In An Empty Sky

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, and for commercial pilots, the many changes have hit especially hard.

Flying in an empty sky
Jeremy King writes about flying in an empty sky due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Normal speed out of 14,000, and I’ve got a shortcut if you’d like.” When a plane has cleared the terrain on departure from Salt Lake City, a modest shortcut down the road is pretty standard if departing in the late evening hours.

“We’ll take it.”

“Cleared direct PIGLT for the PIGLT arrival into Orlando.”

I blinked hard as my finger hovered above the keypad. We were over Utah. The controller was handing us a shortcut to a fix on the arrival, more than four hours away, in Florida, between Ocala and Orlando. Sometimes my “say again” calls on the radio are because I don’t understand the last transmission. Sometimes they’re because I don’t believe the last transmission. I was flying in a nightmare, an apocalyptic wasteland, a world where no passengers showed up for our flights.

We’d get vectored around all sorts of traffic and probably get routed back onto our planned route once we change to Denver Center, I reasoned. Then I said the same about the transitions to Fort Worth, Houston and Jacksonville centers. We had to turn a few degrees right for exactly one airplane, an Atlas 747 crossing our path on its way to New York. Once back on course, our next vector was to join the final approach course in Orlando. Much of the time, we were the sole flight that each controller had on the frequency.

We were flying in an empty sky.

It was my first real trip after several months off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ten days shy of my twice-extended landing currency’s expiration, I’d gone to our training center for a few takeoffs and landings to reset the clock. My first trip on the line, a doozy of a four-day trip, got wheedled down to a three-day after some of the cities the overnights were scheduled for didn’t reopen as forecast. My trip next morphed into three days of round trips to the Dominican Republic. Finally, all but one of those round trips were then canceled. The captain on that trip had been away almost as much as I had; his greeting was, “I hope you’re more current than I am.” I assured him I was legally current in the Airbus, but my proficiency was mainly in the Mooney. We laughed, we cried and we worked our way through the round trip.

Four days later, I was back at the airport for an honest-to-goodness five-day trip that would actually be seven days away from home, since the sign-in was too early and the sign-out was too late to commute home the same day. The emptiness of the airports was shocking, and the austerity of it all was appalling. To reduce touchpoints, the company had reduced inflight snack service to a zipped plastic bag handed to the passenger with a small bottle of water, a napkin, and a snack or two. In the airports, the grates were closed at almost every shop, bar and restaurant. A friend captured a photo of the hostess stand at a Cuban restaurant in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport; a newspaper dated from March still lay there many months later. It felt like photos from the city near Chernobyl, without the dust and decay. Everything was cleaned to a virus-free sheen, trying to ensure the traveling public that air travel was safe in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I’d taken a couple months of a strange schedule: Instead of the typical summer rush when airlines struggle to staff flights, our company had offered months of partial pay if we’d just stay home with no obligation to the company. I jokingly called it a test drive for retirement and tried it out for three months. I stayed home and tinkered with the airplane, read the news and kept tabs on the industry. While I knew what was going on, it really failed to sink in until I saw entire airport terminals closed, food courts abandoned, ramps clogged with pickled airplanes, and airlines failing. One hit particularly close to home: The first airline I flew for was winding down its operation.

In 2007, I hired on at Atlantic Southeast Airlines in Atlanta, a regional carrier that had been in business since 1979. It had a solid history and a promising future, but the market shifted. The mandatory retirement age changed from 60 to 65, oil shot north of $100 a barrel, and the economy took a huge dive in 2008. When business headed south, some of our airplanes got shuffled to other carriers. And then the company experienced its first round of furloughs, ever.


The business of regional flying is a cutthroat proposition—razor-thin profit margins even under good circumstances are shaved down as carriers underbid one another for contracted flying. We had a great pilot contract compared to other regionals, and because of that, we had a lot of senior pilots. Other divisions also had longtime employees who had topped out the pay scales, but the business is formed on the idea of people in many workgroups moving along to greener pastures instead of getting comfortable and building a castle. I flew almost a decade there with some of the most wonderful crews and had a ball. Along the way, our parent company bought ExpressJet and merged the two airlines. We had thousands of pilots, and the company billed the combination as a “super regional,” but it wasn’t to be. The 50-seat jets were a dying fleet, and we had a bunch of them.

We were losing airplanes and flights left and right. I was losing ground on the seniority list there, too, and I soon jumped ship when a major carrier gave me the nod toward the dance floor. I’ll admit to often looking back over my shoulder to check on my friends, though. Some went to cargo carriers. Others got the golden ticket at legacy carriers. Others thought they could make it to retirement. I wrote a lot of letters recommending many friends who’d paid their dues and deserved something better.

An announcement in late July of this year that all of ExpressJet’s contracted flying was being terminated at the end of the year left a lot of people without a dance partner and only a couple years until mandatory retirement. My heart hurt for them. Short of some miracle announcement with some last-minute flying, the company plans to spool down by the end of the year.

But even at major carriers, we felt the pain. Industry-wide, approximately 80,000 employees had received WARN Notices, federally required letters informing them that their positions were targeted for furloughs or layoffs. Well north of 10,000 of those were pilots, many of whom had felt like they’d gotten the “golden ticket” by hiring on at a legacy carrier. As we walked the terminals, masked-up in our uniforms, knowing eyes met. Cheerful greetings tried to hide the sadness and uncertainty, but we all knew there was no security for any of us when we stood beneath an empty sky.


As the trip drew to a close, the captain hurried off to catch a cargo flight home—he’d be traveling until 6 the next morning. It would have been shorter had he grabbed a car and driven to his home in Virginia. All of our airline’s flights for the day had departed by the time we parked, and none of the other carriers had any flights left headed anywhere near my home. With nowhere to be in a hurry, I stayed aboard the plane to say goodbye to each passenger as they left. Every person aboard had stresses to deal with, but we were all feeling the effects from the same big stressor, and that common ground seemed to form a foundation of empathy upon which we shared a few kind words as we passed. The thanks were genuine, from me and from the passengers. I swapped places with a flight attendant and let him claim a few “nice landing” compliments as he stood in the flight deck doorway, and we both chuckled at that.

Once all the passengers were off, the inflight crew stepped away last, and I grabbed a flashlight for the postflight inspection. The airplane was bedding down for the night, so as I stepped back aboard, I started to shut everything down. The thunderclap of silence is always startling as contactors snap open, screens go dark, and cooling fans spool down. Our Airbuses rarely go dark; standing in a quiet, dark cockpit is a rare thing in a fleet of airplanes that the company normally has flying around the clock.

But there’s no telling when we’ll see normal again.


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