‘We were the only airplanes in the sky’

(CNN) — Darrell Myers remembers the surreal feeling last March when nearly all passenger travel shut down, leaving cargo pilots like him flying all alone.

“We saw the devastation hit the airline industry,” said Myers, the president of the Luxembourg Airline Pilots Association, who is a captain for Cargolux. “There were moments where my company, we were the only airplanes in the sky.”

Like many essential workers, international pilots have had to adjust to a drastically different work environment over the past 12 months.

As the pandemic caused the sharpest air traffic decline in history, airlines were forced to lay off or furlough nearly half of all pilots, according to a recent survey from Goose Recruitment and FlightGlobal.

Those still flying can face sharply reduced flight schedules, regular Covid-19 testing and isolating layovers confined in hotel rooms.

Courtesy Jason Voudri

First Officer Jason Voudri feels lucky to still be flying after the Covid-19 pandemic devastated the travel industry.

Courtesy Jason Voudri

First Officer Jason Voudri was in the middle of switching employers when Covid-19 struck and he found himself grounded for several months.

When he finally received the call to fly again, he needed refresher training on a simulator before he could start flying for Air Senegal.

Back in the air since January 8, he knows he’s among the lucky ones, saying he’s “just grateful to be among the pilots who actually have a job right now.”

Coping mechanisms

Voudri’s routine as a commercial pilot now includes a mandatory temperature check when arriving at the airport and filling in a form to attest he is free of Covid-19 symptoms.

He wipes down thrust levers, knobs, and switches in the cockpit when taking over from another crew. The flights his airline used to fly daily now only run three days a week.

Pilots wait for to be tested for Covid-19 after landing in Hong Kong.

Pilots wait for to be tested for Covid-19 after landing in Hong Kong.

courtesy Captain Dylan Myers

They’ve also grouped some destinations together, turning once nonstop flights into connecting ones.

Pilots who regularly fly between countries face a wide spectrum of rules regarding testing, layovers and rest time, determined by national governments that are trying to balance health and safety concerns with the need to facilitate necessary passenger and cargo travel.

Some countries exempt pilots from testing requirements and quarantine, as long as they obey local mask and social distancing rules, while others require they stay confined to a hotel or even inside an individual hotel room on layover.

Captain Myers sometimes gets tested more than once a day for Covid-19. He jokes he is so used to the nasal swab he now lets the person administering the test “surprise” him by choosing the left or right nostril.

As for the hotel lockdowns, Myers said pilots have different coping mechanisms for the isolation. Technology, especially video calls, are a big help.

“I sometimes take a guitar with me on trips. You learn to adapt to it. But I think in the long term we [will] start to see that people are impacted by it,” he said.

Extended isolation

Hong Kong introduced the world’s strictest policies towards air crews last month, requiring them to quarantine in a hotel room for 14-days.

FedEx said in an internal memo that it would offer relocation to its air crews as a result of that policy, saying the quarantines would lead to “extended periods of isolation” and time away from their families.

Taiwan and some states in Australia have all tightened quarantine rules for flights crews over the past few months, after specific incidents. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations warns that such “complete lockdown may have detrimental effects on mental health.”

Meidan Barr, chairman of the Israel Airline Pilots Association, believes the current system is not one that will support post-pandemic recovery. He wants a global standard to be established.

“Most of us are vaccinated, but we’re still tested and go back to a hotel with no room key, sometimes without a window, getting some cold food outside your door, not able to walk or even to do some work out,” said Barr.

While most Israel pilots are vaccinated, flight crews in much of the rest of the world are still waiting. Several organizations that represent pilots, including the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, the International Transport Workers’ Federation and major US unions have urged governments to give flight crews priority access to vaccines.

Myers doesn’t want his colleagues at the back of the vaccine line, but he hopes they are not pressed into mandatory vaccinations either. Like Barr, mostly he is advocating for consistency, saying the current “kaleidoscope” of recommendations will only make it more challenging for the industry to recover.

“Quarantine rules create a constant change effect that then obviously has a bit of a destabilizing factor on our ability to just really plan for the future, sometimes planning rest or, you know, even sometimes telling the family where we will be,” he said.

Ivan Watson and Will Godley contributed to this report.