Air travel and COVID-19: Air New Zealand pilot on his flight to Wuhan, the centre of the pandemic

​When Mark Rammell flew the only New Zealand flight into the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, he had no idea that same virus would end his four-decade career as an airline pilot.

In February, he joined the flight crew of an Air New Zealand Boeing 777 in Hong Kong – bound for Wuhan. They were tasked with bringing Kiwis home on the only evacuation flight from the city.

He could tell things were a little different following the crews' briefing. For one, the window for getting the crew to China and back before they would be forced to stop and rest was tight.

"We were extremely aware of what something like an emergency landing in Indonesia or Australia would mean [if we ran out of time]. Imagine trying to set down unscheduled with a planeload of passengers from Wuhan."

Not getting off the ground was not an option either, he said. Where would they stay in Wuhan? How would they get out, themselves? How could the company recover the plane?

After an unremarkable flight to the Chinese city, it became clear things were not business as usual in Wuhan.

"At that time, you've got to remember, New Zealand wasn't even in lockdown."

As they descended that night into Wuhan, the crew could see the modern, brightly lit motorways were deserted. Everyone waiting for them on the tarmac was in full personal protective equipment.

"That to me was the fist time I thought 'Oh, our perception in New Zealand is not quite what other places are seeing'."


The crew did not get off the plane as it was loaded, refuelled and the 198 passengers boarded. On the ground for about four hours, Rammell says they pushed the time limit right to the edge.

One of three captains in the five-person crew on the flight deck, Rammell piloted the plane on the return leg to Auckland.

Cabin crew told Rammel the passengers were relieved to be heading home. Many had travelled a long way to get to Wuhan and spent days in hotels with no access to shops for essentials.

Rammell continued to fly, but as borders closed and the world shut down in the wake of the pandemic Air New Zealand began examining how it could stay viable. Following discussions between the airline and the pilots' union, an opportunity came up for senior pilots to take early retirement. Rammell made the tough decision to do so, ending his career in October.

"I love flying – I had a bloody good job, I was paid well and I loved it," he says.

Rammel has now traded in his jet-setting life for a more settled existence, running a function centre and gardens he owns with his wife in Upper Hutt.

Rammell said the pandemic has decimated the air travel industry.

When he started as a commercial pilot with Eagle Airways in 1982 the industry was still feeling the effects of the 1970s oil crisis. His career has spanned the 1987 share market crash, September 11 terrorist attacks, the SARS outbreak and the global financial crisis.

But for the aviation industry, Covid-19 was a disaster on another scale, he said.

"The industry was on an upward trend but [with the pandemic] it didn't plateau, it stopped and dropped, with Covid, we've never experienced anything like it."

However, Rammell is still optimistic about the future.

"My hope and experience tells me we will get over this. Nothing has quenched people's thirst for travel or to visit family overseas – we're just going to have to be patient."

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