Other Voices: Playing the Pandemic Roulette

 - July 22, 2020, 4:22 PM

At the end of 2018, several of my close friends and I were newly minted flight instructors at Arlington Municipal Airport in Texas. Having earned our CFI, CFII, and MEI certificates, we were ready to mold the minds of future aviators—and to begin discussing which regional airlines we would move to once we’d logged 1,500 flight hours.

One of our group voiced a preference for an airline that he said offered the largest signing bonus. Another picked a carrier because of its operating bases, which suggested to her that she stood a good chance of being based locally right away as a first officer.

At no point did any of us even consider that we might not end up moving to an airline once we’d met our time requirements. Nor did we imagine that we might not even have that option. But that’s understandable. After all, throughout our training we’d been told repeatedly that the industry was experiencing a severe pilot shortage.

In fact, it seemed as if all we’d ever heard from mentors, parents, airline recruiters, social media, hiring boards, and job websites was that we faced a rare opportunity. We’d been told from every corner how we would fly better on easier-to-operate airplanes and make more money than our predecessors had. Most importantly, we’d been told that airlines would be absolutely begging us to grace them with our presence on their flight decks.

We all felt tremendously fortunate, and we drank the Kool-Aid. We believed this rhetoric, and with good reason: at the time we were listening to this constant message, it was true. The Kool-Aid was not yet laced with arsenic, and we were walking in the Garden of First Officer’s Eden.

To my ear, however, this all occasionally sounded just a tad too good to be true. I’m not suggesting that I predicted the tremendous blow that Mother Nature would deliver to our industry in late 2019 and early 2020. On the contrary, I eagerly consumed copious amounts of data about positive hiring trends and increasing salaries, and I was just as optimistic as my peers. Every now and then, though, I would encounter marketing pitches that seemed to defy belief.

Often they came from airline recruiters who visited our training center. These splendidly dressed advisers would come by to deliver the latest batch of icing onto our job-prospect cake. They would tell us about expanding health-insurance packages, rising wages, improving commuter policies, and lengthened time-off schedules.

It was all good news. But occasionally the icing was a bit too sweet. Judging by the way these recruiters talked, it seemed we wouldn’t actually have to work at all. Indeed, our lives would consist of dressing in sharp uniforms and kissing babies on the flight deck while being made richer than Croesus.

Fortunately, this narrative was nicely juxtaposed for me in real-time by a designated pilot examiner (DPE) with whom I took multiple checkrides. During these checkrides, he told me stories that made it clear that becoming a professional pilot was not always instantaneously rewarding. He himself had had to join the U.S. Air Force, be chosen as a pilot candidate, and serve in the Vietnam War to earn his hours. He’d then had to fight tooth and nail for a slot at an airline, move across the country to take that job, and deal with two furloughs and a massive fuel shortage.

The message he was conveying in stories like this was that I should appreciate my current situation for what it was and realize that it wouldn’t last forever. This message stayed in my mind as I listened to and read the endless stream of good news about the industry. Sure enough, my friends and I would not have to wait long in our careers to experience firsthand what that DPE was trying to get across to me.

Since the arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S. in January, air travel in America has declined steeply. Initially, airlines were still running their routes, though with fewer passengers. This was, of course, unsustainable, and before long the number of scheduled daily flights began to shrink, from more than 25,000 at the beginning of March to barely over 10,000 in mid-April.

Even more shocking are the statistics regarding travelers passing through TSA security checkpoints at major airports. By mid-April, the average daily number was down to just under 125,000, compared with 1.8 million at the beginning of March—and 2.5 million in April 2019. And while we have so far been spared mass furloughs of pilots and flight attendants (largely thanks to enormous government grants), the number of hours flown has declined an average of almost 25 percent for both groups, with thousands of employees from many airlines volunteering for unpaid leaves of various lengths.

Times have indeed become tough in the industry. While a strong recovery is predicted for the days when passengers do eventually return to the airlines, it’s hard not to feel a sense of karma at play. Pilots became a bit too comfortable about their new and prospective positions, and the universe has had something to say about that.

The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin once commented, “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.” That quotation rings true, and the current state of affairs takes on an entirely new meaning when the anecdotes are personal. In the group of friends that I mentioned earlier, two had new-hire class dates for their new jobs as airline first officers set at the end of March. Both of those were canceled. Another of our group had a class date postponed until further notice.

For the rest of us, who are currently 100 to 200 hours shy of our ATP minimums, the next move is unclear. Even when we accumulate our time, will there be a place for us to go or a right seat to fill? Will we be stuck instructing, ferrying, surveying, or dropping parachute jumpers for the next three to five months—or three to five years? These are questions that no one seems able to answer.

But I’d like to end this article on an optimistic note, because Textron Aviation recently completed the first successful flight of its new Cessna 408 SkyCourier. This twin PT6A turboprop-powered workhorse won’t singlehandedly save the industry, of course. But it represents a potential positive shift of direction for commercial aviation in the U.S.—an important shift for those of us just entering the Part 121 or 135 worlds.

To understand why you first need to appreciate the capabilities of this aircraft. Powered by two Pratt and Whitney PT6A engines whoofing out 1,100 shp apiece, this multi-mission pack mule has an impressive maximum payload of 6,000 pounds in freighter configuration. With a maximum range of 900 nm (notably a few hundred miles less than its single-engine predecessor, the Caravan) and a cargo range of 400 nm, it has the endurance to get its payload where it needs to go. With a maximum cruising speed of 200 ktas, it has the ability to get it there in a reasonably timely manner as well. And it requires only 3,300 feet of runway to take off.

This is all such good news for freight carriers that FedEx has already placed an order for 50 of these turboprops with an option for 50 more. While the freighter configuration is impressive, however, it’s the 408’s passenger-carrying capabilities that may have a bigger impact on the industry. Because while the aircraft can haul lots of cargo, it can also be configured to accommodate up to 19 passengers. And that is an interesting prospect indeed.

Over the last several years, some Part 135 companies have formed to carry a small number of passengers on specific, hyper-local routes for extremely reasonable fees. So far, this seems to have been a solid business model for many of these companies. Almost always operating with two pilots even when not required to do so, these companies provide an incredible opportunity to low-time pilots looking to get their first taste of flying passengers.

While Part 135 requires PICs to have a minimum of 1,200 flight hours, first officers with as few as 300 or 400 hours logged may find themselves in the right seat of an aircraft burning jet-A. That’s a tantalizing prospect for many young pilots. It is also noteworthy that these operations rely heavily on single-engine turboprop aircraft, with Cessna’s 208 Caravan being the backbone of many of these flight lines.

With its single-engine cousin having paved the way to success for this bustling and expanding new wing of the commercial aviation world, the SkyCourier clearly has a throne simply waiting for it to ascend. In every field except for maximum range and cargo range (due to two Pratt and Whitneys gulping fuel instead of one), the SkyCourier outshines the Caravan. It can haul more weight in either boxes or people. And it can move that payload more quickly and at an equally high cruising altitude.

This isn’t to say that the introduction of the 408 spells the downfall of the 208 Caravan; rather, it will expand the Part 135 regional airline sector. For pilots on the brink of entering the commercial workforce, the signal is as clear as it is hopeful. The path may not be identical to the one forecasted by social media or airline recruiters. But it is there and firmly paved.

Pilots exist not for the uniforms or accolades but rather for our love of aviation and the satisfaction of providing an essential utility to our community and society. For me, it doesn’t matter whether my first service is in an Embraer 175 or in one of Cessna’s new 408 SkyCouriers. I’ll be achieving my purpose as long as the seats in the aft are full of satisfied, safe passengers. Even if there are only 19 of them.