Updated: Jun 14
As the aviation industry is detrimentally affected by the spread of Covid-19 across the globe, several airlines have grounded their fleet. Some employees have sought refuge in their homes, filled with hope that they will return to their current jobs after the crisis has subsided. While thousands of others have already stomached the news that unemployment awaits them on the other side of this pandemic. No one knows what the future of the aviation industry is. While we wait around in anticipation of what is to come, there is, however, one group of pilots whose job security is unaffected by the travel bans and lock downs, and they continue flying despite the risks - cargo pilots.
According to IATA (International Air Transport Association) airlines transport over 52 million metric tons of goods annually. To put this into perspective, in a 24 hour period 100 000 aircraft takeoff carrying 140 000 tonnes of cargo. 6 849 lives are saved due to vaccines being made available, over 80 000 flowers are sent and 20 million parcels are loaded on board. During the Covid-19 pandemic cargo airlines continue to play a vital role in the supply chain, and even the cargo capacity of passenger aircraft has proven useful.
To find out how it is possible for cargo operations to continue in quarantined countries, I interviewed Emilie - a 21 year old B737 cargo pilot in Europe. According to Emilie, special measures have been put in place to assist in reducing the risk of crew contracting and spreading the virus. For example, crew must carry thermometers and masks on almost all flights, and hand sanitizer was given to each pilot. There are also new guidelines in place, similar to those recommended to all humans at this time: greeting others with cheek kisses (which is a standard form of greeting in certain European countries) or handshakes is not recommended, maintaining a minimum distance of 1.5m from others is encouraged and washing hands with soap is essential. Oh, and do not spend time socializing in the crew room.
What about outstation? Cargo pilots are familiar with late night slots and therefore often have layovers away from their home base. “We are quarantined in our hotel rooms on layovers,” said Emilie. This is not only for the safety of the crew, but because some countries do not allow people to wonder around the city freely. “Some countries have closed their hotels so we can’t layover, or some countries (like Italy) are too dangerous so we fly the normal route followed by a final leg with an empty aircraft back to our home base,” explained Emilie.
Since the number of people infected with Covid-19 increases daily, I questioned whether cargo airlines were tasked with transporting medical supplies. “We still don’t know what we carry, but I’ve had the impression we carry more cargo than we did before,” said Emilie. After further research my suspicion was confirmed by IATA on their web page - cargo flights are essential for distributing medicines and medical supplies across the world. Although the amount of scheduled flights at Emilie’s airline have remained the same since they have always been flying to their maximum capacity, “we still have the feeling that we fly more because a lot of our crew are getting sick (maybe they are not really sick, perhaps they’re only calling sick because they are afraid, or maybe they have a sick family member…) so for the moment I have a few more flights on my schedule.”
Seeing as cargo flights are one of the only forms of income for airlines during lock downs, some airlines that usually operate both cargo and passenger flights have decided to shift their focus solely to cargo for the time being. Since it could take an entire year to convert a passenger aircraft into one dedicated entirely for cargo (the passenger seats and certain other features of the interior would have to be removed, and special rails to load the cargo would have to be installed) some airlines are simply filling the cargo hold instead of meddling with the cabin. The hopes are, after all, that in a few months from now passengers will be able to travel again and airlines can resume normal operations in their existing fleet.
Unfortunately, with the economic recession, it is unlikely that people will be able to afford luxurious traveling even after the lock down. And it is predicted that social distancing and intermittent lock downs will still be part of our reality in the future until a vaccine or cure has been developed. How this will affect the aviation industry is still unknown. The only thing certain is that aviation will be forever changed by Covid-19.
In the meantime let's show our support for those brave (and fortunate) enough to still fly, and let’s do our part by following all the lock down rules so we can all get back to flying sooner rather than later. Hopefully we will all be back in the air soon, and then, looking back, we will all be grateful for the weeks we got to spend with our families now.
The views presented in this article are solely the author's based on available information at the time of writing. The purpose of this blog is to inform readers, not to provide professional advice. Readers are advised to research further and consult relevant professionals, such as flight training schools. Readers are cautioned when acting on information provided and assume all risk from such actions.