You may remember reading about Korry Franke, a now Newark-based 737 pilot who wrote the book 3 Feet to the Left, here on the blog. I reached out to Korry to ask how things were going from a pilot perspective, and he offered to write a column on his experiences and feelings. Sadly, it sounds like Korry will end up going 3 feet in the other direction once this is over, but then again, that’s a much better outcome than the furloughs that many will likely experience.
Oh, one more thing before I turn it over to Korry. The thoughts and views expressed in this column are Korry’s alone, completely independent of any affiliation with his employer.
As I write this, the largest pilot “displacement” bid in my airline’s history has just closed. In some ways, it was similar to a high-stakes game of musical chairs.
To adjust for the unprecedented drop in passenger demand from COVID-19, the company instructed more than 4,000 pilots in suddenly overstaffed fleets and bases to stand up. It then moved or removed various blocks of pilot chairs from the game, such as all the Boeing 787 seats in Los Angeles and some of the 737 captain seats in Newark. Then the music began. Pilots mulled around nervously, evaluating the changed landscape and searching for the best place to sit down. When the music stopped, pilots used their company-wide seniority numbers to claim a new seat.
This resulting downward shuffle has rippled through the entire airline. Displaced Boeing 777 captains have become 757/767 captains. Displaced 757/767 captains have become 737 and Airbus 320 captains. Displaced 737 captains like me have shuffled down into first officer seats on a variety of fleets. I was fortunate to end up on the 787, but who knows how long that will last. The downward cascade continued until every pilot at the airline had a seat… for now. But no one knows what October may bring.
Admittedly, this feels like an alternate universe compared to a few months ago when we celebrated one of the best profit sharing days in my airline’s history.
But then the COVID-19 light switch flipped. And everything changed.
The passenger counts from my last three trips make the downward trend easy to spot. In late February, I flew jam-packed planes for four days. A week later, my flights departed with only a few open seats here and there. On my last 4-day trip in the middle of March, however, the passenger counts fell off a cliff. Smack dab in the middle of spring break season, my flights averaged about 100 open seats. One flight managed only 21 passengers. The lone flight carrying more than 100 people did so only after several cruise lines stranded vacationers by canceling sailings from Fort Lauderdale.
The truth is, those numbers don’t tell the whole story of how it felt to fly during the darkest moments of this pandemic. Perhaps this will.
My first taste came while making my welcome aboard announcement from the front of my 737’s cabin. Instead of friendly smiles, I saw facemasks. Instead of excitement, I felt anxiety—at least from the few passengers actually occupying seats at all. In an attempt to ease the palpable fear and uncertainty, I ended my announcement by saying something like, “If you’re trying to determine what things you should fear, let this flight not be one of them. We’ve got your back.”
I’m fairly certain, however, that everyone felt alone — especially flights crews at hotels.
On a layover in Seattle, flight crews made up the overwhelming majority of what limited guests were on property. In Norfolk, after the hotel restaurant shut down along with other local establishments, I literally walked through the drive-through line of a Chick-fil-A. Then I stopped at a grocery store to purchase several boxes of protein bars in case the crews flying with me the next day needed them.
Like dominos, the industry began to fall down, block by block. Flights canceled. Planes were parked. It seemed the only things flying were the memos coming off the proverbial printing presses detailing operational changes, including guidance for the proper contact time of disinfectant wipes used for cleaning cockpit switches before each flight.
In mid-April, I was called to the airport to fly an empty Boeing 737 to Texas. Prior to leaving my house, I tucked a letter certifying I was an essential worker into my flight bag…just in case I got stopped for violating the new shelter-in-place orders. On the employee bus, yellow caution tape covered every other seat to preserve social distancing standards. But with only two other employees on the bus, social distancing wasn’t much of a problem anyway. Inside the terminal, there were no long queues of passengers waiting at security. No crowded concourses. No open restaurants or coffee shops. It felt like I had landed on the surface of the moon—this eerie, desolate place I barely recognized. There was only me and a handful of my colleagues…and a cleaner riding a floor scrubber. I couldn’t help but take a few selfies. When would I ever see Newark this way again? I hoped the answer was never.
Almost fittingly, even that ferry flight canceled. So, back home I went, making sure to wipe down my luggage and take a shower before touching anyone or anything once I got there.
While a few friends of mine have flown trips since then, I have not. In fact, as I write this, it’s been 68 days since I last flew an airplane. Only the gap between my last flight at American Eagle Airlines and my first flight at Continental Airlines has been longer. Considering I flew Boeing 757/767 simulators over that span, this is effectively my longest gap without flying since I began, well, flying. That was 21 years ago in high school!
I miss flying dearly. I miss the busy-ness, the crowds, and the middle of the night calls from crew scheduling assigning me a trip. I miss the jovial attitudes of colleagues and the mundane shop talk that has now turned to uneasy questions about the future. Heck, I even miss the delays. (Did I really just write that??)
My wife misses me flying, too. She knows I’m not the same with my wings clipped, and the introvert in her misses her quiet time!
Pilots are meant to soar. We’re meant to see blue sky every day, to explore new cities and visit the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants only flight crews know how to find.
Every morning, I remind myself, this, too, shall pass. The crowds will return. This crisis will end. And COVID-19 will become a good war story to tell at 38,000 feet while droning along over the Great Plains or the North Atlantic.
The glimmers of hope increase almost daily. Take, for instance, the daily count of passengers screened by the TSA. Since April 20, the 7-day moving average has increased every day. Sure, passenger throughput is still only one-tenth of last year, but it indicates the bleeding has stopped and the rebuilding has begun. Then there are news reports indicating airlines are beginning to upgauge aircraft on certain routes (such as swapping regional jets to 737s, or small 737s to larger 737s). Extra flights are being added. Even certain international routes are being reinstated.
Yes, we have a long way to go. No, the recovery won’t happen overnight. But perhaps — just perhaps — we’re seeing the world’s unprecedented hibernation nearing its end. When it does, I’ll be eager to get back in the saddle—whether as a captain or a first officer.
Until then, I’ll keep my uniform pressed and my bag packed…with a few face masks and protein bars tucked inside, of course.
I’ll also continue reminding myself that smooth skies always follow the turbulence, and that the faint pin-prick of light along the horizon on an overnight flight indicates the dawn of a new day is fast approaching.
May that light continue to grow for all of us in the weeks and months ahead.