Highs & Lows


What a difference a few months makes. At indoc in January this was not even remotely where the industry was headed. All the talk was about how much money everyone was making, how many people were retiring and how quickly--2.5 years at my company--people could upgrade to captain. People's seniority projections seemed guaranteed to make us all wide body captains before we even knew it. Of course, none of this has shaped up as planned.

Interestingly, one instructor mentioned a virus that was spreading in China and how we were reducing flights there as a result, but nobody could have foreseen only 87,534 airline travelers in the U.S. on April 14th, just 4% of 2019's travelers on that same date. I was flying that day during a block of OE, and it was truly dismal. One could count the travelers on one hand, vastly outnumbered by airport and airline workers. Even then I was optimistic, but in retrospect I had zero reason to be.

Any old airline pilot will have stories about furlough. It seems equal parts related to world events and mergers, neither disentangled from the other and both completely cyclical and looking back, high time for some of each. The old heads also seem to be about equal parts grumpy and paternalistic about their furlough for so many years. The former group are the former Continental, TWA & similar circumstance group. Some were furloughed for more than a decade, and came back to a career that had been ravaged by 2001 & 2008 only to be painfully and precipitously near the chopping block of 2020. The other group is more of the "there there sonny I got furloughed and I made it out fine, so you will too" mindset. Both camps have their reasons and they may be both correct about where my peers and I sit, but it's not particularly helpful advice.

The most insightful thing I have heard about furlough is that for many, it was the best years of their lives. This statement normally comes with no explanation apart from what they did for work on furlough, but I think I know exactly what they mean. It is a big pill to swallow to start in on a career full of promise only to be slammed by events far beyond one's control. But, when life gives you lemons, it is best to make lemonade. These folks who enjoyed their time on furlough appear to have re-envisioned what really matters in life, reduced their expenses, thought outside the box. What else happens in such times one can only imagine, but I think I can imagine it's pretty cool stuff. Some went to law school, others got CDLs and became truck drivers, more than a few are realtors and stock investors.

So my optimistic side simply can't help itself; I will endeavor to reinvent myself, some of which is already underway. Providentially it didn't require much at all from me to find employment. Despite my small-town situation, through coworkers I have found work flying part time for a small business in town. Thankfully, with that and my time at the Reserve unit, we can cover our expenses and even save a little. Even better, I'll be working less, not more. What I will do with that extra time is my "law school" equivalent...maybe I'll try to become a DPE. Maybe I'll buy an airplane project. Maybe I'll write the next great American novel. Clearly I have time and energy to dedicate to this blog.

Time will only tell what will happen to the airline industry. I'm optimistic that people will begin traveling again sometime in the near-ish future. I'm also realistic enough to know that bankruptcies, mergers, and a decade on furlough could be my reality, too. Whatever happens, I'm thankful for my family, my home, and the fact that the world still needs lots of pilots.


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