From cockpit to coffee roaster: 'desperate' pilots hit by Covid turbulence

Aviation jobs have been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic

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If the airline industry were to be given a coronavirus anthem, Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me wouldn’t be a candidate; Kings of Leon’s Going Nowhere, on the other hand, might just be.

A former airline captain has told The National that the situation for many pilots is "desperate" with the devastating toll Covid has wreaked on aviation laid bare by the Pilot Survey 2021.

Of those who participated, 30 per cent described themselves as being unemployed and 17 per cent as being furloughed.

The survey also showed that only six per cent of pilots have been accommodated in non-flying roles in aviation, with another four per cent working but in another industry. This left just 43 per cent of respondents still in active service.

There isn’t a precise figure on the number of pilots to have lost their livelihoods since coronavirus struck but the European Cockpit Association said in January that in Europe over 18,000 jobs had either already gone or were imperilled.

Furthermore, in November, Europe’s pilot union Balpa issued an extraordinary proclamation telling aspiring aviators that there were no jobs in the industry and only huge debts.

So the pandemic hasn’t just crushed aviation jobs, it has crushed aviation dreams - and Joe Townshend, 33, from London, has been affected more than most.

Twin headwinds: Thomas Cook’s collapse and Covid 

“I don't know why, cliched as it is, but something inside me just always wanted to be an airline pilot,” he said. “No one in my family's involved in aviation but I was determined to be from a young age.”

In September 2019 Mr Townshend lost his job as an airline captain at Thomas Cook when the venerable travel firm went under.

Recovering from this blow, he was re-employed at Titan Airways at the beginning of 2020 and he thought he was “home and dry”. Just three months later, with the pandemic beginning to take hold, he was out of work again.

Joe Townshend in the cockpit. He 'always wanted to be an airline pilot'. Courtesy Joe Townshend

It was a bitter pill to swallow, and Mr Townshend was not alone in swallowing it.

“It’s really not a good situation,” he said. “Of the 600 odd pilots that worked at Thomas Cook, around 80 to 90 per cent found a job at the start of last year. But at least half, maybe even more, are redundant again now. And that's just the Thomas Cook pilots.”

Mr Townshend listed pilots he knows from British Airways and Virgin Atlantic who have been made redundant, and mentioned the collapse of Norwegian Air’s UK operations.

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I know several pilots that are working as drivers for supermarkets or online delivery companies to make ends meet

The Scandinavian operator is currently embroiled in controversy after it emerged that it would not be remitting the salaries of staff laid-off during the pandemic.

The financial difficulties faced by pilots haven’t garnered much attention - and Mr Townshend is clear as to why.

“It's always going to be difficult because the public sees [being a pilot] as a glamorous role: well paid, lots of travel, lying on beaches etc. It's hard for people to find sympathy.

“But I would fully imagine that there are a lot of pilot families that are really struggling because if their means were fairly handsome and then all of a sudden they're not, then big mortgages and outgoings are going to be hard to pay.

“I know several pilots that are working as drivers for supermarkets or online delivery companies to make ends meet.”

UK government accused of abrogating responsibility

Mr Townshend didn't mince his words with regard to the UK government's handling of aviation's annus horribilis.

“For whatever reason, the government just hasn't sort of got involved in any shape or form to support the aviation industry.

“Revenue wise [the industry] generates billions for the UK economy. It's a huge, huge market. It’s as though the government hasn’t seen the figures - or assumed airlines had enough in the bank to sustain themselves.

“I think it's particularly bad; there's no headline news in the public domain.”

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Unfortunately skill fade is a massive thing in aviation ... the longer you go not doing it, the worse you become at it.

He is in no doubt as to the fiscal short-sightedness of throwing the industry under the bus.

“There'll be a significant number [of pilots] that will never fly again as a result - 100 per cent.

“I recently renewed the two licences that I hold to be able to get jobs, and that's cost me approximately £400 ($546) per licence.

“It isn't an outrageous amount of money but times it by the many thousands of pilots that don't currently have a job and it is.”

Mr Townshend also cited skill fade as being an impediment for pilots returning to the cockpit after a prolonged absence. It was reported this week that pilots in the US have been making more errors than customary since resuming flying.

“Unfortunately skill fade is a massive thing in aviation,” he said. “The longer you go not doing it, the worse you become at it. It's just the nature of the beast.

“You find sometimes that even when you'd been on a couple of weeks leave, you'd come back and feel a bit behind the ‘drag curve’.”

From cockpit to coffee roaster

Given the daunting challenge of refashioning a career as a pilot, Mr Townshend decided to take a different route and in April last year he formed his own coffee making business, the appositely named Altitude Coffee London.

A friend of his owned a commercial property that was happily going unused and Altitude Coffee took flight.

It has not been without its challenges as the premises were derelict when Mr Townshend and his coffee beans moved in. But he revealed that after several months of hard slog, things were starting to take shape.

“I'm really pleased and the brand's resonated really well. So I'm hoping that we can carry on building what we've got. Everybody's been really positive about the product.”

Aviation not ‘over the cliff edge’ yet

Mr Townshend may be ploughing his furrow outside of the aviation industry’s auspices, but there are kernels of hope for pilots determined to stick rather than twist (or grind).

The not-for-profit organisation Resilient Pilot was created in direct response to the pandemic to keep pilots supported, current and connected, and to help them navigate a return to the flight deck.

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Pilots should keep the faith ... I am absolutely convinced that there still will be an airline industry in the years to come."

One of Resilient’s mentors, former senior first officer at Eastern Airways, Simon Rolfe, said that the future of the industry was in the lap of the vaccine gods.

“If everything goes to plan [with the vaccine], and human behaviour starts to return to pre-Covid normality, I think that the vast bulk of people who've been laid off may well find themselves getting a phone call from their former employers.”

Given Mr Rolfe has worked in the industry through two of its greatest crises: 9/11 and 2008’s financial crash, he has heard the industry’s death knell being sounded before.

“All the naysayers were declaring oh, that's it, things will never be the same again,” he recalled. “Yet a few years later, things were the same again - and I think exactly the same thing will happen this time.”

Another voice of cautious optimism is Jenny Body CBE, former president of the Royal Aeronautical Society. She acknowledged that it is a very tough time for the industry but that it hadn’t “gone over a cliff edge to nowhere”.

“Pilots should keep the faith,” she said. “I wouldn't say the future is rosy because I think it's going to look different and the airlines are going to be different - there'll be some sort of rationalisation. But I am absolutely convinced that there still will be an airline industry in the years to come.”

Former Eastern Airways pilot Simon Rolfe says that the future of the industry is in the lap of the vaccine gods. Courtesy Simon Rolfe

She pointed to Airbus sales as being a barometer of recovery.

“They have dropped but they have not been catastrophic, they've not gone through the floor.

“So aircraft are still being made and sold. And I think from an aerospace perspective it’s interesting to look at the new aircraft and the new technology which are going to be delivered.”

Contrary to Balpa’s foreboding warning to young pilots, Ms Body also revealed the work that has been taking place to facilitate the replacement of the large batch of older pilots that were coming to the end of their careers, notwithstanding the pandemic.

“We've been working with the UK government on things like pilot apprenticeships which would be a very good way of getting less advantaged people into the industry - and there's still every intention for these to go ahead.”

Joe Townshend's journey from pilot to coffee maker - in pictures

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