Working as a pilot for a commercial airline has always been a stressful job, but since the pandemic it’s much worse. Like most airlines, mine, a well-known carrier, was not prepared for increased demand when travel restrictions eased. He had cut more than 1,000 jobs at the start of Covid and suddenly found he didn’t have enough staff.
Combined with similar shortages at airports, this has resulted in delays and disruptions. If passengers are a few minutes late at the gate, the plane can lose the slot assigned by air traffic control, which means waiting an hour and a half for another one.
The cabin crew can then find themselves trapped in an aluminum tube with angry (and sometimes drunk) passengers. There have been a few cases this summer where things got out of hand. I had a passenger, frustrated by the delays, who didn’t want anyone else to use the wall unit above him. It was a small thing, but he lost it and said, “If you use that locker, I’ll break your teeth.”
On other occasions, there were not enough ground personnel to get passengers off the plane. This is especially difficult when there is a passenger in a wheelchair and they are stuck without access. I would say around 80% of my summer shifts ended between an hour and three hours later than expected.
It would be bearable if we felt appreciated by our employer, but many experienced pilots like myself (I have flown commercial aircraft for 20 years) have had part-time contracts as part of an economic boost from the airline, while new pilots (who normally contracted huge debts during training) significantly reduced terms and conditions are offered.
It costs the average commercial pilot a total of £ 135,000 to complete their training, so he is paid between £ 25,000 and £ 30,000 annually. The pilots can earn a decent salary but initially, given the investment and the debt incurred, the pay is not great.
Meanwhile, the bosses are back for their bonuses. The airlines have been operating with goodwill for years, and I did what I could and worked unpaid hours, but no more.
To all this there is the age-old problem of fatigue, which the industry as a whole has never adequately addressed. Pilots work in blocks, so one day I might be on an early shift, start work at 6am, and then switch to late shifts the next day, should start work at 6.30pm, after going to bed at four in the morning. You can try to sleep during the day, but often I can’t and then you have to go to work another 11 hour shift. The ever-changing schedule is brutal, and many of the airline’s “fatigue measures” are just window dressing.
So it’s no surprise that the pilots and cabin crew are suffering, both physically and mentally. A poll by Trinity College Dublin in 2020 found that 20% of pilots and a shocking 58% of cabin crew had symptoms of depression.
I don’t know how widespread it is among my colleagues, but there is little incentive to talk. The 2015 Germanwings incident – in which a co-pilot deliberately crashed into the French Alps, killing everyone on board – still casts a long shadow. Airlines are very concerned about any signs of anxiety or depression among pilots.
People fear that speaking out will hinder their chances of promotion or fear losing their license. There are reserved support programs, but with trust between pilots and management so low after the pandemic (there is bitter resentment among pilots for the way Covid was handled), I don’t imagine absorption be tall. Most will suffer in silence.
You can understand why people do secondary work or why the cabin crew ends up leaving. Then they realize that there are industries where you are appreciated, you don’t always have to get up at 3am, you have weekends off and you don’t have to deal with aggressive passengers, so obviously they leave in droves.
As told to Abigail Buchanan