Etihad pilot who became estate agent in pandemic among 500 staff rehired

Maurits Robert van Gelder was 'two days away from not being able to pay rent', as airline recruits again

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A pilot who turned to real estate and pet sitting when he was made redundant in the pandemic is finally back in the cockpit, after being grounded for 18 months.

Abu Dhabi resident Maurits Robert van Gelder, 31, said he was two days away from not being able to pay his rent when he received an email from his former employer offering the opportunity to go back to flying.

The Dutch citizen is one of 500 staff rehired by Etihad Airways — including 95 pilots — who were made redundant after the pandemic began in early 2020.

Despite having tried to forge a new career as an estate agent, personal trainer and pet sitter to make ends meet, Mr van Gelder said he always believed he would wear his pilot's epaulettes again.

When I got back in the cockpit I felt this instant comfort. It’s like putting on your favourite suit
Maurits van Gelder, senior first officer

“The only reason I stayed in Abu Dhabi after the redundancy was because I had full faith I would work with Etihad again,” he said.

“I first got the email about the redundancy in July of 2020 and my first official flight since being rehired was on February 24.

“When I got back in the cockpit, I felt this instant comfort. It’s like putting on your favourite suit.

“The timing was quite perfect too because my motivation for doing anything else but flying had started dropping.

“I tried to make a living doing real estate and personal training but towards the end it was difficult to make enough money to stick around in Abu Dhabi.”

Maurits is now back in the air after being grounded in the pandemic. Ruel Pableo for The National

Mr van Gelder said aviation has always been a big part of his life, as his father worked as a pilot and his mother as a cabin crew manager,

During those 18 months being away from the skies, the senior first officer applied for more than 20 jobs with airlines.

“The biggest problem was that there was such an overload of applicants,” he said.

“There were so many pilots available on the market but there was such low demand for them because of the whole pandemic.

“A lot of companies were not in the position to hire and those that were tended to hire pilots with close ties to the company.

"It was demoralising but I never gave up hope.”

Last November, Mr van Gelder received an email from Etihad asking if he would be interested in rejoining the company. He said he was just days away from packing up his things and moving back home.

“I think I responded to the email in about two seconds saying, ‘yes, yes, yes’,” he said.

“I sent it several times just to make sure it was at the top of their inbox.

“As things progressed, I was told there were spots available to fly cargo in January of this year, or I could wait and go back to mainline passenger flying but they didn’t have a date on when that would be.

“I instantly replied back saying I'd love to join on cargo because I just needed to be airborne again.”

After previously flying passengers on the Boeing 777-300 to places such as the US, South Africa, Australia and East Asia, he has been rehired as a cargo pilot flying the same aircraft.

To date, he has travelled to several destinations, including Germany, Hong Kong and Kenya.

Etihad looking to boost staff numbers

Like many airlines, Etihad was forced to make staff cutbacks during the pandemic as the travel industry took a huge hit.

“Etihad Airways has rehired close to 500 staff through its alumni programme so far, 95 of whom have been pilots," the airline said in a statement.

With travel demand now on the up again, the airline has been in the process of hiring 1,000 employees — from cabin crew to ground staff — over the past three months.

In an interview with The National, Tony Douglas, chief executive of Etihad Aviation Group, said the airline expects to deliver impressive results in the first half of this year on higher load factors, strong passenger yields, solid cargo business and lower costs.

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Updated: May 31, 2022, 4:36 AM