My Son's Recent Experience Flying the Line
I'm writing this letter to all the old hats out there. These are some of my observations as an active airline pilot flying during the Covid 19 pandemic. All airline pilots will sometime in their career weather a storm or rather storms that they can tell their grandkids about. This particular storm is like no other. Just to put it into perspective, if an airline the size of United or Delta airlines was to become the only one remaining, that airline could cover all of the travel in the United States, and still have to downsize under the current conditions. It is an ugly situation at best. Unfortunately the airlines are a reflection of our economy and the hardships that the average American is going through. This is not a pandemic of the rich, poor or of the middle class. This is a far reaching event that will somehow and someway touch every human on the planet. Eventually if left unchecked this will adversely affect every American and every global citizen out there.
I recently returned to flying after two and a half months of medical leave due to a hip replacement. My last trip prior to surgery was the first three days in February. The last leg was an oversold red eye from Portland Oregon. That was the world that I left. I followed the initial outbreak of the pandemic from the comfort of my house, hearing reports of very bleak tales from friends who were actively flying. When I walked back into the airline environment last week, the changes I had been warned about were very hard to comprehend. It felt like I had walked into a sci-fi/horror movie in which most of the population had been plucked from the earth.
The changes started at the employee parking lot. Normally when pulling into the checkpoint at the parking lot, you hand your ID to a security guard who swipes it across a reader to allow you access. Now due to social distancing, the employee must stop the car, get out and swipe their own badge. While this is not a big task or a painful one, it is just reflective of social changes that this pandemic is causing. Finding a parking spot can be difficult, especially around a shift change. Due to voluntary leaves of absence, over a third of our workforce of ninety thousand, for the first time in my six years in the Atlanta base, finding a parking space was not a problem. The next noticeable difference was at the employee bus stop. Our employee bus stops happen to be a place where security screening of employees is conducted. This includes an x-ray machine and a metal detector. Now in addition to this screening, employees must also have their temperature taken via a thermal scanner. If an employee has a fever, they are denied access to the bus and sent home. Their supervisor is notified as well. Once you are cleared to continue, you head out to the bus. Due to social distancing, only nineteen employees are allowed on the bus at one time, so if you are unfortunate to have a check in during a shift change, extra time is required to get to operations.
As the bus left the parking lot pulled onto airport property, the sheer downsizing of our operations became evident. All of our T gates in ATL were empty and the jet bridges had been pulled flush with the building. Atlanta operations have been consolidated to concourse A and B with a handful of international flights departing out of the E concourse. For those who haven’t been through Atlanta in recent times, Delta operated out of T, A, B, C, half of D, E and half of F concourses.
As I walked into ops, I was stunned by the lack of pilots that are normally there. The black chair recliners that normally are full of tired commuting pilots were empty. There were a few pilots working on the company computers. Normally, you have to wait for a computer station to open up but that is no longer the case. The tables that usually have company propaganda and news letters have all been re-designated with containers of hand sanitizer and surgical mask. After signing in for my trip, I ventured upstairs to the gate level. On any given day, the terminal is usually packed so navigating to your gate is a human obstacle course. Buying a cup of coffee, or a sandwich to go would normally be abandoned due to long lines of passengers. Those lines don’t exist anymore and have been replaced mostly by crew members. The only refreshments on the aircraft is water and little bags of Cheezits. Coffee and soda are unavailable on the airplane so now crew members are forced to buy their own before boarding the aircraft. There are very few food venues open but the ones that are open are more than adequate due to the few people in the terminal.
As I walked to my gate, it was straight and steady, absent of the zig zaging due to the normal overcrowding of outgrown concourses. The few passengers in the terminal are generally wearing protective mask and rubber gloves. You can sense the fear of our society by what little of the public is actually traveling. Almost all of the gate agents are wearing mask, and at the time of this writing, all employees have been directed to wear mask as the six foot social distancing can’t always be maintained. I assume that this is a legal requirement so that neither employees or passengers can sue the airline should they become infected.
When you board the airplane and head to the flight deck, the first visual check is to see if the cockpit sanitation kit is on the center console. If it isn’t, it is usually in one of the galley carts. The kit consist of rubber gloves , a heavy duty disinfectant cloth and several little Purell hand wipe packets. Before you start building your nest in your appropriate seat, you need to put the rubber gloves on, open a sanitizer wipe, and start wiping off anything you might touch when you sit down, such as armrest, headrest and the yoke. Once in your seat, you have to use the heavy duty sanitizer cloth and go over each and every switch and it’s associated panel. It is a tedious exercise and generally after you are done, the realization occurs that you have missed one or two items as you operationally reach for the missed item.
As your fellow crew member joins you on the flight deck, pleasantries and greetings are exchanged but with the absence of a traditional hand shake. You take notice of anything that looks out of place with your new best friend. Do they look well? Any sniffles? Coughing? The one obvious symptom of this virus, is that everyone either needs a haircut or they are sporting a hideous self or spousal administered cut.
Once the operation begins, things kind of get down to a normal flow. With CRM, we try to brief all contingencies including all known threats. Normally, this would include issues with the aircraft, airport, weather and any personal limitations that may effect the safety of flight. The one thing has to be noted and briefed is mental distractions due to personal concerns regarding the airline. Our crew resources just published their anticipated headcount for November. Needless to say, there will be furloughs and downgrades. I am flying with copilot’s who likely will not be flying for Delta next year. It is very likely that I will not be a Captain next year. All of these things weigh on any normal individual, but the importance of staying in the moment cannot be over emphasized.
Boarding is much quicker as you are only boarding 20 to 30 people on an 180 passenger jet. Also boarding the aircraft is reversed now with the back of the aircraft boarded first, working up to the front of the plane. There is no longer a struggle to find overhead space so everyone just plops down in an expedited manner.
Everything works pretty much the way it has in the past as far as completing checklist and coordinating with the ground crew for push back. On taxi out, things are quicker due to the lack of traffic so you have to make sure you get your second engine started with adequate warm up time if you are doing a single engine taxi.
Launch is quick, and usually you can do a rolling take off as there is not the usual “traffic down field” holding requirement. The other thing that has to be considered is doing a reduced climb thrust setting in addition to a reduced take off thrust due to the light aircraft weight especially if you have a low altitude level off. With the climb rates of these empty airplanes, it would be easy to blow through an assigned altitude. I love having 757 performance on the 737 but unfortunately, good aircraft performance is now directly proportional to poor economic performance.
Climb out and cruise are the same with the exception of climbing directly to your altitude. There isn’t a lot of traffic so those interim level offs are not required. ATC is also giving a lot of direct routing as well. The absence of radio chatter can be a little unnerving as well. There are random calls from aircraft asking if ATC is still there. Fuel flow at cruise is noticeably lower. A fully loaded 737-900 can only climb to about 35000 feet and burns between 3200-3500 pounds per engine per hour. On one of my recent legs, we were at FL400 and the fuel flow was 2100 pounds per engine. Again, good aircraft performance is equating to poor financial performance.
Descent is more or less the same except for the fact that often you are taken off the arrival much earlier and farther from the airport. Without the previous traffic levels, the spacing requirements are pretty much null and void so flights are cleared from a hundred miles out to a close in fix on the approach. Landing clearance is generally given much sooner, usually upon check in with the tower. After landing, taxi clearance is given from the tower bypassing the ground controller. At airports that are dominated by competitors the aircraft many of their airplanes are in semi storage. Those aircraft have their engines, ports, vents and windows taped over. Delta has moved most of their airplanes to storage facilities, so Atlanta airport and Delta hubs are different than the other airports I have seen.
Once parked and shutdown, the walk to the curb begins. During these times, it is a lonely walk, devoid of people. The following picture was taken at Detroit. It was taken at 6 pm. Three months ago, the airport would have been packed. Now it is a ghost town.
Shuttle pick ups are now at the curbside where there is little or non existent traffic. No longer is the usual honking or trilling of police whistles to move cars on. The automated public announcements advising traffic of loading and unloading only, echo like stadium speakers as there aren’t any objects to either block or absorb the sound.
Due to social distancing requirements, only four passengers/crew members are allowed to ride on a shuttle. Everyone is wearing a mask, and some crew members are opting to wear gloves. In my opinion, this is our highest exposure to the virus. Personally, I am using hand sanitizer wipes to disinfect my seating area. The ride to and from the hotels, especially a downtown layover, is much faster due to the absence of traffic.
Once you arrive at the hotel, the noticeable absence of guest strikes you. Most hotels are closed and the few that are open are housing multiple airline crews from different airlines. All restaurants, bars and sundry shops are closed. Like our gate agents and the rest of the general public, hotel staff are donning mask. As you are given your key, you are given a sheet of paper that list the limited items available from room service. Generally there is also a list of the local restaurants that are open for take out only.
Once you are in your room, you will notice the absence of personal amenities. There is not a coffee maker, microwave or hair dryer. The first step that I personally do when I enter my room is to take a hand sanitizer and wipe off all the things I might touch. This includes the TV remote, the night stand, bathroom counter, light switches, door knob, phone handset and lamps. The process takes several minutes and wipes to do it correctly.
The other important thing that is now closed in the hotel is the gym. Any exercise has to be either walking, running or calisthenics. For obvious reasons, I can no longer run for exercise so walking is now my “thing”. The most noticeable difference when walking outside of the hotel is the absence of pedestrian and auto traffic. As you walk, any on coming pedestrians will often steer clear of you sometimes crossing the street to avoid potential human contact. It as if the whole human race has become infectious leper’s.
When it comes to meal time, if you don’t want to indulge in the overpriced, limited room service menu the other option is takeout. The local restaurants usually have a website to place an order along with the requirement to pay via credit card. Cash is now frowned upon and often not accepted. When you go to pick up your order, generally you are not allowed inside the establishment so an employee meets you at the front door and hands you your order. Dinner is now a solo event that is conducted in the privacy of your hotel room. There is no comradery over a beer and a burger at the end of the day. Basically, all the enjoyable social aspects of the job have been shelved for the time being.
We had an early departure the next morning. There wasn’t a lot of choices for breakfast. Certainly not at the hotel and limited at the airport. We know the old saying, “nothing is for certain accept death and taxes”. I think that you could probably add to that “ somewhere there is a Starbucks that is open”. So breakfast was a Pikes Place coffee along with a blueberry muffin. Again, the concourse was a ghost town. We had a whopping 22 paying passengers and about 6 dead heading crew members. Again, an uneventful flight full of unrestricted climbs and descents with a whole lot of directs.
Once again, this is just but a brief description of my observations. I sincerely hope the world wakes up from this pandemic and that public fear dissipates soon. If people are too afraid of dying, they will stop living. If that happens, the failure of the airlines will be the least of our worries. Ultimately, if you choose to believe, our fate is tied to the will and the plan that God has for us things seem easier. If you choose not to believe that, then all fate would be is the consequences of a random universe. Either way you believe, it still comes down to one thing. We have absolutely no control over the current events or the impact of them.
When I got home this morning, it was glorious. Clear skies, light winds and a perfectly comfortable temperature. The birds were singing loudly. I sat outside on the back deck and took it all in. Praise God for such a beautiful day. At least we can still enjoy the little things. I dedicate this to all you old hats and the trials and tribulations that you experienced in your careers. In a relatively short time, I too will be an old hat. God bless you all. And God bless all people worldwide.