We miss being in cockpit having lost our jobs to coronavirus — Nigerian pilots - PUNCH
BY Jesusegun Alagbe
His last assignment at over 30,000 feet above sea level was in March – shortly before the shutdown of airports due to the coronavirus pandemic.
As he flew the plane from Lagos to Abuja, he did not know it would be the last flight to his sacking, after close to a decade of flying.
“I knew the pandemic would have devastating effects on us in the aviation industry, particularly pilots. What I did not know was that I would be among those who would lose their jobs,” a former pilot with one of the airlines in Nigeria, simply identified as Captain Lawal, told Saturday PUNCH.
Lawal, who lives in Abuja with his family, said it would not be easy to cater for his family in the long run if he didn’t get another flying job soon.
He said, “For the past seven months since I lost my job, I have had to dip my hands into my savings to cater for my family. I have a wife and three children. The only thing that has reduced my expenses is that my children are not resuming school this year. I will wait till the next session in January. My wife, in particular, is still a bit worried about their risk of exposure to COVID-19 should they start going out.
“So what it means is that by next year, if I have not got another job, things may be a bit tight. I have a few investments but they have yet to yield good returns. And I don’t know of another job that I can do apart from flying.”
Another pilot, Captain Femi Abdullahi, was among those currently unemployed, particularly due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abdullahi, who flew Embraer planes while he worked with one of the airlines in Nigeria, said sitting at home for the past seven months without flying was one of the worst experiences of his life.
“In the past 12 or so years of flying, I flew at least 20 hours in a week, within Nigeria and sometimes between Nigeria and other West African countries particularly Ghana. Being redundant is killing me right now,” he said.
Abdullahi, a Kwara State indigene who is in his 40s, said what had made him sadder was the fact that he just relocated his family abroad when he was sacked.
He said, “I just relocated my wife and children to Canada when I lost my job. My wife is still schooling in Canada, and we planned she would look for a job when she finished when I was sacked. I thought I would be able to take care of all of them. But right now, it’s been a bit difficult,” he told our correspondent.
“I’m still grateful, though. Thankfully, when I was still flying, I was able to save some money and also invested some. I would have probably been more devastated. But even at that, the fact that I’m not flying currently is killing me,” he said.
Popularly called “Captain K” by his colleagues, another pilot, simply identified as Kunle, flew Airbus jets with one of the foreign carriers operating in Nigeria until he was sacked in June.
Kunle, who said his employer said the layoff of pilots was to adapt to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, told Saturday PUNCH that since he was relieved of his job, he had felt depressed, as he had lost the “joy and special feeling” of being airborne.
Describing his joy of flying, he said, “As a pilot, I used to get amazing views. For instance, in the summer when the weather was clear, I could see up to several kilometres away, something a normal passenger could not see. Even if it was burning hot on the ground, life in the skies was lovely. I could see seas, cities, lakes, and mountains, and they were all beautiful scenes.
“In the winter, I got to pierce clouds. Many times, I got to see the shadow of the plane I was flying on top of the clouds. When the air was smooth and I was flying a bit low, I could see tiny vehicles or houses passing below me as I flew over them. In the skies, I did not ever think of life’s problems. I used to get astonished and marvelled at God’s works on every flight. In all, I enjoyed the cockpit life.”
Obviously, Kunle said he “deeply” missed flying and it was what was making him feel unhappy every day he stayed at home.
“I just wish to go return to every day, because for me, I’m not sad about the income I’m not making because I’m out of job. It’s not experiencing what I used to experience that makes me sad,” he said.
Also, after working as a pilot for about 13 years, a Lagos-based pilot who once worked with a foreign carrier, Jackson Onunaiju, lost his job in June when the COVID-19 pandemic affected his employer’s finances.
He also reminisced on his joy of flying and said he wished he could return to the skies soon.
He said, “I can’t stop thinking about pre-job loss moments. Speaking of nesting and others, they were fun moments for me. (Nesting is said to be the first thing every pilot does in the cockpit, and it basically means setting up the items they will need for the flight. They stash away their luggage and unpack the essential items from their flight bag, including a headset for talking to air traffic control, and electronic flight charts.)
“Sometimes I sit down and also think about prepping the plane, entering flight data into the computer system, running through checklists, and taxiing out.
“During takeoff, I got to hand-fly the plane until we got up to cruise. (Hand-flying means flying the plane manually, an experience many pilots describe as fun.)
“It was so exhilarating to feel the plane peeling away from the earth and to watch the ground become smaller beneath me. Once I reached a certain elevation, I could turn on autopilot, but if it was a clear and sunny day, I could hand-fly the plane a little longer. (The autopilot is a computer system that maintains all the controls on the plane like speed, altitude, course, and engine power, and so on.)
“When I turned on the autopilot, I would still be monitoring the controls and communicating with ATC to make sure the route ahead was clear. If there was bad weather or another plane in the way, ATC would re-route us to a different course.
“I love the cockpit experience. The seats are ergonomically designed for comfort, which is a big upgrade from the passenger seats. Also, because every airplane pilots fly on will be super-drying, I used to drink a ton of water to stay hydrated. It helped me to never get jet lag.”
Particularly during international flights, Onunaiju said he used to get “micro-vacations,” and he always ensured to do something special while in a foreign city, such as tasting the local cuisine or sightseeing.
“So now, when I think about it, I never felt stressed while flying even though it’s a stressful job. I miss this joy and I can’t wait to return to flying,” he told Saturday PUNCH.
Another pilot who lost his job, Yomi Animasahun, said staying without flying was causing him some sort of worry.
The 29-year-old said he lost his job due to the pandemic and even though the aviation industry was gradually picking up, he was unsure he would get another job anytime soon.
He said, “I am not losing hope but I really wish I could get another job soon, because staying redundant as a pilot is costly. You have to keep ‘fit’, in the sense that you may lose your licence if you don’t keep flying. So right now, even if I got another job, but it is unrelated to flying a plane, I could lose my licence.
“This gives me anxiety every day and I wish to be back in the cockpit soon. Also, not making any income is killing me. I can’t remember when last I couldn’t travel to any country I wanted to with my wife and two kids. But right now, the situation is a bit bad.”
To say the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a downturn in the global economy is to state the obvious. The pandemic’s effects have cut across industries, with millions said to have lost their jobs worldwide.
Obviously, one of the industries’ most affected by the pandemic – which has infected millions and killed thousands of people – is aviation.
According to Bloomberg, in response to the massive slump in demand for air travel, many jobs have been lost and more jobs could be lost in the months ahead in response to the pandemic.
Analysis by Bloomberg as of July showed that globally, about 400,000 airline workers had already been made redundant, furloughed or have been put on notice of losing their jobs.
Aviation experts at Bloomberg said the data, gathered from official airline press releases, as well as a number of other news sources, might only be the tip of the iceberg as many airlines had not publicly reported job losses or declined to disclose the exact numbers of workers who had been laid off.
For instance, in Europe, British Airways has said as many as 12,000 employees or around a third of its total workforce could lose their jobs as the airline prepares for what it has described as “the biggest structural change” the aviation industry has ever witnessed.
Also, in just a single day in June, one of the largest airlines in the Middle East, Emirates, reportedly laid off several pilots and cabin crew, blaming the recession for the action. During that period, hundreds of pilots also reportedly lost their jobs at Middle East carriers, Qatar Airways and Etihad.
Apart from being sacked, several pilots worldwide were also forced to take pay cuts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Nigeria, the situation was not different as some airlines reportedly sacked some pilots due to the pandemic.
However, at the time the sacking was announced, the aviation minister and the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers intervened and urged the concerned airlines to recall the sacked pilots because of the likely economic burden on the workers.
Fear of redundancy
Apart from not making income due to joblessness, one of the issues some of the laid-off pilots said was causing them pain was redundancy, which in literal terms means a pilot not able to get flying hours.
Even when the economy rebounds and the aviation sector also reboots, the pilots said they would need to be up to speed – meaning they would not just polish their suits and shoes but would also need to brush up on their flight-deck skills and ensure they keep within the boundaries of aviation’s stringent safety regulations.
For instance, Onunaiju said he had been supervising his clothing business since he was out of a job but had to keep spending his earnings to keep his licence updated.
He said, “When I talk about keeping my licence updated, I am speaking of medical, insurance, multi-engine instrument rating, and so on. Keeping the licence updated is a huge expense, particularly when you are not flying. But you still have to do it or else when a job offer comes, you can’t go for it.
“I’m still holding on and I won’t give up. My wife too has been helpful in terms of emotional support, because I tell you, if an out-of-job pilot does not have a good support system, they can be depressed.
“So as an out-of-job pilot who still wants to fly and not retire, frequent training and recency are required. (According to Brian Strutton of the British Airline Pilots Association, recency means complying with regulations that stipulate a pilot must have successfully carried out three takeoffs and landings, one of which using the cockpit’s autoland facility, within the previous 90 days.)
According to Strutton, simulators are also important to help pilots keep their skills sharp. But while much could be practised using computer games such as the Microsoft Flight Simulator, he said there was no substitute when it comes to ratings, training and certifications – saying pilots needed to access real, full-scale flight simulators.
“Expense is an issue too. Simulator time costs around $300 (N114,000) to $400 (N152,000) an hour and that’s without the necessarily associated personnel. It’s all an enormous undertaking,” he added.
Speaking with our correspondent, an aviation analyst, Mr Olumide Ohunayo, said many pilots might remain redundant in the next two or three years as the economy had yet to rebound and airlines were not flying their aircraft at full capacity.
He said, “The pandemic decimated the industry. Airlines were forced to park their aircraft and return leases. For some airlines, the frequency of flight was reduced because they did not have enough passengers. When you look at these, they affected the whole value chain in the aviation industry, where we have pilots, engineers, cabin crew, dispatchers, flying instructors, and others.
“It did not happen only in Nigeria. Even in the United States, aviation workers have been laid off.’’
Ohunayo said the lay-offs in Nigeria, and elsewhere, would definitely affect their proficiency, adding that there was no hope they would get another job until the global economy improved.
He added, “As some have lost their jobs, they have also lost their recency or proficiency. And when they don’t have proficiency, they are automatically grounded. The reason is that many pilots cannot travel out of the country right now.
“I think it’s only pilots who fly common airplanes like Boeing 737 who can afford to retain their proficiency as they can go to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for retraining. For pilots who fly other planes, they cannot train within Africa and this can prolong their redundancy.”
Ohunayo stated that as it was, pilots and airlines did not have the powers to prevent job loss, saying this could only be determined by governments and the economy.
He said, “Governments worldwide must tackle the pandemic and get the travellers’ confidence back. It is when people begin to travel again that the airlines will begin to thrive, and when they do, jobs will return to the industry.
“However, what the industry has lost cannot be recovered in the next two or three years. Most of the airlines cannot get to their full capacity until 2022 or 2023. What this means is that most of the unemployed pilots will remain so until 2023. But by that time, the question is: will they still be competent to fly?”
The aviation analyst urged the Federal Government to make it easy for airlines to access palliatives, as this would prevent further job losses.
He said, “I think the government has provided palliatives for the industry, but there are issues. They are too low, the conditions to access them are too stringent, and they did not come on time.
“Also, the government recently gave the conditions to key into the palliatives, whereas in other countries, their governments are already giving the second rounds of palliatives.
“Here, some of the palliatives cannot be accessed until next year. And the question is: is it when the pilots and others are dead that they will be able to access the palliatives?”
No govt palliatives yet for us —Pilots’ union
Speaking on the issue, President, National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers, Abednego Galadima, said they had yet to be provided palliatives by the government several months after.
He added that as a union, they had appealed to many airlines to reduce the rate of pilot redundancy for them to survive the current harsh economy.
He said, “On our part, we have come to terms with the effects of the pandemic, but we still have to intervene in a manner that everybody goes home happy. We have asked the government for palliatives, which have yet to come, so that pilots and other aviation workers can retain their jobs.
“During the lockdown, we made several presentations with other unions to the Senate Committee on Aviation regarding help for the industry. But the palliatives have yet to come.
“We have also intervened by way of social dialogue with most of the airlines, except one or two, to see that their businesses survive this pandemic and bounce back strong.”
Abednego said as more people were gradually starting to travel, the aviation industry would improve and jobs would be returned.
How unemployed pilots can cope — Aviation psychologists
As flight crew, including pilots, around the world are currently facing unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, some specialist aviation psychologists have offered coping tips for such aviation workers.
In an article, the co-founders of the Centre for Aviation Psychology, based in the United Kingdom, Prof Rob Bor and Aedrian Bekker, said pilots were arguably more affected than most other aviation workers by the impact of COVID-19 on the air travel industry.
Bor and Bekker – as well two other experts Dr Gill Green, a clinical and aviation psychologist, and Captain Laurie Ling, a retired British Airways pilot – therefore recommended some coping mechanisms for out-of-job pilots.
The experts wrote on centreforaviationpsychology.com, “It’s okay not to feel okay but it’s not okay to lock away your feelings. Fear of loss of career can lead to experiencing a wide range of emotions and eventually, you’ll reach a stage of adaptation. Don’t go it alone – get help navigating the grief-like feelings and help to create a plan to move forward. If your sadness/anxiety explodes into full-blown depression, be sure to seek professional help immediately.
“Don’t engage in self-defeat: Avoid behaviours that will keep you in a cycle of negativity. Keep a routine. Don’t isolate yourself–get outside, seek adventures, and fresh air. Make a conscious effort to surround yourself with people who support and inspire you– avoid those who are angry.
“Make a realistic assessment of your financial situation: If you think that you may be out of work, set out all your necessary expenses and exactly what you need to survive. Talk to lenders to re-negotiate deals and be brutal about cutting out ‘discretionary spending.’ Involve your family in this process and brainstorm ideas.”
They also mentioned rewriting CVs to prepare for any flying opportunities and having cover letters for any non-flying jobs. According to them, paperwork such as documents, licences, logbooks, and medical are also essential for job hunting.