‘It’s hard to be earthbound’: Airlines prepare for a bumpy take-off

Nicola MacPhail was soaring over South Africa’s rugged south-west coast in a Cessna 152 light aircraft when she knew her accounting career was over.

“I was blown away that you could do something that filled you with so much joy, and you could get paid for it,” she explains.

Jumping at a suggestion offered by her brother (a South African Air Force pilot) 14 years ago, her maiden flying lesson over the stunning Saldanha Bay, north-west of Cape Town, prompted MacPhail to leave the world of London finance to fly charter planes around Botswana and South Africa before moving to Australia in 2016.

But like many pilots, COVID-19 brought the 43-year-old’s career to an abrupt halt, costing her job as a second officer on Virgin Australia’s Boeing 777s flying between Brisbane and Los Angeles.

Qantas and Virgin Australia together laid off around 11,500 people last year as the pandemic grounded aircraft globally, inflicted billions of dollars of financial losses and tipped Virgin into bankruptcy.

Now, after a gruelling 19 months, the aviation industry is dusting itself off. State borders should open and stay open when the 80 per cent vaccination target is reached under the state and federal reopening plan (although West Australian, Queensland and Tasmania are threatening to go rogue).

And in a surprise announcement, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday he will lift the ban on Australians leaving the country in November, and open the border for vaccinated Australians who will be able to complete seven days quarantine at home, rather than a fortnight in a hotel.

Airlines are hopeful domestic passenger numbers will recover to pre-pandemic levels early next year, after hitting one-fifth of normal volumes in July and falling further since then as the Delta COVID-19 wave plunged NSW and Victoria into lockdown. Just 51,000 passengers passed through Sydney Airport in August, compared to 3.7 million in August 2019.

And while the international recovery will take years, Qantas said on Friday it will start thrice-weekly flights from Sydney to London and Los Angeles from November 14 in light of the Prime Minister’s border announcement.

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Flights to the US and UK from other capitals, and to Japan, Singapore and Fiji are scheduled from December 18. Virgin will return to Fiji two days before Christmas, and then Bali in March.

MacPhail considers herself lucky to have found a new job she loves with a drone (or “unmanned aerial vehicle”) consultancy on the Gold Coast, but is also hopeful that an industry recovery will mean she can return to the flight deck. “I miss it terribly,” she says.

Even if everything goes to plan, restarting an industry that has largely been in hibernation for almost two years is far from straightforward.

More jets, more crew

Grounded pilots need to be retrained, mothballed aircraft need to be restarted, and there are still unanswered questions about exactly who will be allowed in and out of Australia this summer.

“It’s a big challenge, no doubt about it, but it’s a really exciting time,” says Qantas’ chief pilot, Captain Dick Tobiano.

Virgin’s chief operating officer Stuart Aggs says the company’s biggest challenge is getting pilots and flight crew trained in time for the anticipated up-lift in flying.

“We’re as busy as we’ve ever been,” he says.

Virgin shed 3000 jobs after the pandemic pushed it into administration in April 2020, and has since relaunched as a much slimmer airline under the ownership of US private equity firm Bain Capital.

And the carrier is bullish about the recovery in domestic travel demand when borders open. It has ordered more nine Boeing 737s to enter service by March next year, boosting its mainline jet fleet to 68 jets (compared to 85 before its collapse).

Virgin has also re-employed 80 pilots it laid off last year and around 400 cabin crew over the past few months. Sixty more pilots (for a total of 840) and a few hundred more cabin crew are set to join by March.

“Our [flight training] simulator capacity is nearly full and all of our training people are [working] full-time and are pushing people through the training system as efficiently and as fast as we can,” Aggs says.

Pilots need constant training and assessment to maintain their certification to fly. Those who have been grounded during the pandemic need weeks, or up to three months if they are changing aircraft type, of full-time training before they can return to the job.

To be “current” and “recent”, and as such permitted to fly, they must complete three take-offs and landings every 90 days among other requirements.

Virgin is scheduling around 700 flights each month which it otherwise wouldn’t need to operate while travel demand is so low, just so there are enough opportunities for pilots to do supervised flight training and assessment.

Qantas, likewise, is planning to fly some empty long-haul aircraft (Airbus A330s and Boeing 787s) to and from the same domestic airport, as well as on some short domestic passenger hops, to help get its pilots trained up.

Tobiano, the chief pilot, says the airline has been trying to keep 2000-odd pilots (250 have left during the pandemic) as up-to-date with their training as possible, sharing any available flying time among the workforce, and implementing regular ground training for those not flying.

“We had to think about how we were going to bring back a whole cohort of pilots who hadn’t been flying for an extensive period of time,” he says.

Around half the pilots who fly its Boeing 737 domestic workhorses are stood down currently, but will be able to return to work easily after doing regular flying earlier this year, before the Delta wave locked down NSW and Victoria.

International flying is a different beast. It never completely stopped, with Qantas’ Boeing 787 Dreamliners used for government-funded repatriation flights and its A330s flying freight.

But some long-haul pilots (around a third of the total 787 crew) have not been flying due to the onerous quarantine requirements, or because they wanted to stay in secondary employment, and will need more extensive training.

There are also around 110 former Boeing 747 pilots who are being retrained to fly either the Dreamliners or the A330s, after Qantas decided to retire the “Queen of the Skies” last year.

And Qantas’ surprise decision to pull five of its A380 superjumbos out of deep storage in the California desert a year early and put them back in service from July 2022 means A380 pilots, who haven’t flown a minute since the start of the pandemic, will need to be retrained.

“We may well be looking at recruiting pilots at some point next year, which sounds crazy at the moment when we’ve got so many pilots stood down,” says Tobiano. “[But] it’s not beyond the realm of possibility… if the recovery goes as well as we all hope it will.”

Qantas has vacancies for 54 captains across its three long-haul aircraft types it needs to fill after last year’s redundancies, according to a staff memo seen by this masthead.

Louise Pole, who is a Qantas regional Dash-8 captain and president of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots, says her biggest concern is they will struggle to re-hire enough qualified pilots as flying demand tracks back to pre-pandemic levels.

The union has more than 1000 members who are no longer working as pilots (close to a quarter of its member) and, without access to training or aircraft, are rapidly losing their skills and certification to fly.

“Some of these pilots who’ve lost their jobs will leave the industry, and we will find out we’ve got a shortage of pilots in Australia,” she says. “Airlines will find they’ll have aeroplanes on the ground because they don’t have the crew to fly them.”

The federal government last week committed another $184 million to subsidise Qantas and Virgin training their crew to ensure the industry is ready to restart when borders open.

Pole says this should also be made available to out-of-work pilots to maintain their qualifications, so airlines can re-employ them quickly and with reduced additional training. “The longer you’ve been out of an aeroplane, the harder it is,” she says.

There were concerns about an impending global pilot shortage even before the pandemic prompting the early retirement of many senior pilots, with plane maker Boeing estimating the world will need more than 600,000 new pilots over the next 20 years.

There are also dire warnings of labor shortages from the specialist ground handing companies, which do everything for airlines from loading luggage and checking-in passengers to taxing aircraft on the runway and running pre-flight safety check.

Two-thirds of their employees (around 4000 people) are stood down without pay and while airports sit idle and are ineligible for any government assistance. A mass exodus of trained staff could force flights to be grounded over summer.

A logistical nightmare

Melbourne Airport’s chief executive Lyle Strambi says restarting the country’s second busiest gateway (pre-COVID) for more domestic passengers is relatively straightforward, given it has maintained operational staff even during lockdowns to service the handful of daily essential flights.

But reopening international travel is a looming logistical nightmare. Answers are needed, says Strambi, about how Border Force will deal with plane loads of passengers who might have different testing or quarantine requirements on arrival depending on if, and where, they were vaccinated.

“We definitely need clarity and we need it quickly,” Strambi says. “We’ve got to make sure they’ve got the facilities and the space to be able to deal with potentially different requirements for different passengers.”

Foreign airlines are frustrated by the uncertainty about whom they can bring to Australia and in what number and are holding off selling tickets until that is resolved.

“We do risk being left behind because those foreign carriers can fly to places where the rules are clear and those markets are reopening,” says Strambi. “They will fly their planes whenever they can, wherever they’ve got confidence to fly.”

MacPhail, the grounded pilot, says it would be a difficult decision if she has to choose between returning to commercial flying or staying with her new employer. She hopes to do both.

But as the airspace near her home above Brisbane Airport gets busier in the coming months, the desire to get back to the sky is likely to grow stronger.

“When I ride my bike... I can see aircraft on my approach to Brisbane Airport and it’s not really a thought, it’s a feeling – a feeling of joy – when you see aeroplanes maneuvering around,” she says. “It’s hard to be earthbound.”

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This article ‘It’s hard to be earthbound’: Airlines prepare for a bumpy take-off was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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