An update to all the old hats out there. In the last article, I gave you a description of flying during the pandemic. Well, it is now been over three months since I returned to line flying and I thought it was time to give a little more insight on the current airline environment.
In my last writing, I went into detail about flying in virtually empty skies, laying over in ghost cities and the day to day difficulties accepting the changes that both the industry and the country faced.
Through the month of June, we have been some positive changes as the country slowly reopened but as we face another shut down I am witnessing a regression, both in travel numbers and hope for a quick recovery. So rather than a detailed letter about day to day life on the line, I will write a condensed overview of what I am seeing.
You may or may not be aware that Delta has blocked all middle seats and only books first class to fifty percent. Overall total capacity is limited to sixty five percent. During this pandemic, management has decided this is the best course of action for the safety of our passengers and crew members. As I write this, the total count of known pilots that have contracted Covid 19 is less than 110 known cases and unfortunately one death from the disease. With what is going on in the US, those numbers are very good for our demographics and it shows that Delta’s thinking is right.
As May rolled around, it was appearing that the United States was flattening the curve and that just perhaps, we had turned a corner. Our competitors aggressively announced an influx of flights back into their schedule pushing their fall plans to a little less than last years numbers. As a line pilot, I started to notice a steady uptick in passengers to the point we were buying people off. I really started to scratch my head and wonder if we were doing the right thing by continuing to social distance on board our aircraft. Most of our competitors lifted their load cap and were selling all seats available. Little did most know that this was a short-lived glimmer of hope.
This morning I landed after flying the red eye from Los Angeles. I flew a 737-900 which in our configuration holds 180 seats. We had 106 passengers on board which was one of the better loads I have flown recently. The trip started off with a turn to Cancun in which we had better than a hundred passengers both ways. That was the bright side of the trip. Our third leg had only about 60 passengers and that was hub to hub. Definitely a commuter’s dream, but a revenue nightmare for management. Day two started with another hub buster and it too, carried around 60 passengers, again on an aircraft configured for 180 seats…. And just for grins, we had about ten or so deadheading crew members that were included in the passenger count on each of those hub to hub flights.
As we have all seen in the last few months, the news has been dominated by two big stories that have had a major impact on our operations. The first one has been all about the social unrest due to the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protest and riots. The second has been the new wave of virus-related hospitalizations and deaths. I don’t know if the first affected the latter in some way but the message is clear. This virus is not done with us yet.
Between the virus and the protest, we have seen many of our long layovers relocated from the city back to the airport. Flight ops often sends out warnings and recommendations regarding layover security, but in the past have been generally reserved for international destinations. This is the first time in over twenty-two years at Delta that I have seen warnings for domestic destinations. Almost every major city we layover in has a warning of political unrest. The union came out with their own warning advising us to cover our uniform (while not on duty) with a nondescript jacket or sweater as we have had a couple of pilots assaulted due to mistaken identity for law enforcement. Again, another sour first in my career.
Everything I wrote about taking precautions in the last article remains the same. The extra measures of safety that we have been doing as crew members are all still there. I think we have all gotten better and more proficient wiping the flight deck down with sanitizer. We are still wearing mask everywhere we go and on a personal level I still take the time to wipe my hotel room down.
Prior to the protest and riots, we started to see an uptick in normal life. As I stated before, a brief glimmer of hope. A lot of cities we flew to were starting to go through some phase of reopening. Restaurants were opening for limited dine in or patio seating. Cash was being accepted again. Crews were finding a little more social activities, namely being able to dine together once again. We started to see a shift from airport hotels back our downtown locations. A few hotels were even opening their gyms, albeit limited numbers of participating individuals at any given time.
Then the protest started… Back to the airport hotels we went. And with airport hotels, we all know the lack of dining options. And not only a lack of dining options but take out as well. Most of these hotels have chosen to not reopen any fitness facilities, pool included. Generally, they are not located in an area where a quick run would be conducive for those of us (generally our younger pilots) who still have some cartilage in our knees and backs. A couple of ingenious pilots have found ways to stay fit, climbing several sets of hotel stairs or bringing resistance bands with them. All the more power to those that do so.
In my last writing, I mentioned about the lack of professional haircuts. Well, most pilots are now back to looking professional. The exception is the few rebels taking advantage of the situation, or the penny pinchers that go to a haircut school for the $5 special. The others that still have bad haircuts are ones who have decided their wives do a pretty darn good job. I’m not joking, I have flown with a few.
What is now noticeable, including yours truly, is the Covid curves we are now all carrying around our waistline. With the lack of open hotel fitness centers, and healthy dining options, most everyone is now packing extra pounds. This makes the collegiate “freshmen fifteen” look good. When this pandemic is over, Jennie Craig is going to get a lot of business.
And now as far as the fitness of the industry goes….
Just to throw some numbers out there for better understanding of where the industry is, let me start with this statement. For Delta to break even, they would have to have 110% load factor on all flights currently being flown. We have sent out just short of 2600 potential furlough notices (WARN letters per the CARES act) beginning Oct 1st. We have had over 2200 pilots decide to accept the company’s early out offer (they have a two-week period to revoke their decision). It has been stated that the early outs will not mitigate any of the planned furloughs. United has sent out 3900 furlough notices. In the letter to their pilots, the Vice President of Flight Ops issued a dire warning that the furlough length would be of a long duration. United also has an early out program but only approximately 1100 pilots are eligible. That would be approximately a loss of 5000 pilots at United and if we get all of the early out takers, we will lose approximately 4800 pilots. And by all accounts that I am hearing, the blood letting is far from over at all of the U.S. carriers.
It is hard to look at the future without losing faith. I have flown with a few of the pilots facing furlough. The cards seem to be stacked against all aspects of life which adversely effects the airlines. As business’s and citizens are having to learn to exist with Covid 19, part of that lesson plan is learning to live without air travel unless it is absolutely necessary. Granted, we still for the most part as a nation suffer from wanderlust, but I think most people have put travel plans on hold. The World Health Organization just warned that it will be decades before we economically recover from this event. By all accounts, this is truly an apocalyptic event adversely affecting all of the global population.
Again, as I stated in my last letter, we can choose to put our faith in God or believe that this is just some random consequence of cosmic events. Again, either way, we have no control over it. I continue to go fly the trips assigned to me and actually take a moment to absorb and enjoy the job of being an airline pilot. In early July I got to see the comet Neowise on a redeye. My last flight I enjoyed the celestial light show of Perseid meteor shower. It is now more important than ever to stop and smell the flowers and not get lost in our perception of the “big picture” because only God truly knows and can see that.
Again, I dedicate this to all the old hats out there. May God bless all of you and once again, all the people of the world. Until my next letter…..David Dodge