As the COVID-19 crisis continues to drag on, I can’t help asking my crystal ball how things are going to shake out. We’ve seen some regionals fold, and I’ve heard of others already starting furloughs. The government came up with a stimulus package that will protect some airline pilots through the end of September, but if things haven’t improved by then a lot of pilots will be in trouble. At the same time, the cargo carriers are experiencing unprecedented demand and have the ability to charge exorbitant prices. (Good for them!)
I’ve written a little about how pilots can make the most of this situation, how to enjoy layovers during coronavirus restrictions, and presented a bigger-picture view of what could happen to us in the future. Please read those if you haven’t yet!
I’ve avoided going into detail on the topic of furlough because I don’t want to cause panic. However, based on rumors I’m hearing throughout our industry, I feel like it’s time to at least discuss it so we can look at some ways to make sure our families are prepared if it comes to that. Sadly, some of our fellow pilots are already there, and I hope this will help them too.
Before we get into the topic here, I want you to go read Chapter 8 from Pilot Math Treasure Bath. I’ve posted the chapter, in its entirety, for free, the website that goes with the book.
This is the chapter about how Pilot Math applies to Dead Zoners. I’ll let you read the definition of that term in the book itself. Sufficeth to say that as furloughs start to propagate throughout our industry, we will see many pilots become our generation’s equivalent of Dead Zoners.
Thankfully, things are different this time. Most pilots don’t have a pension to lose, and while I think furloughs are likely in some cases, I’m optimistic that demand will pick back up somewhat quickly. Chapter 8 of my book presents a sort of checklist on what to do if you become a Dead Zoner. It includes bigger-picture and longer-term ways to address that situation. If you’re smart about how you do that, you and your family will make it through this terrible situation just fine.
Today, I want to look more at some short-term ways to address the possibility of furloughs and other drawdowns that will happen in our industry. Our focus will be on the types of opportunities I think will be viable alternatives to nice cushy major airline jobs (or less-cushy regional airline jobs)…and how to make sure we’re ready to go after them if needed.
Before we dig deep into actionable items, I want to present what my crystal ball has been saying. It’s bipolar, so there is more than one possibility. (If you want a good read about the idea of predicting the future, my all-time favorite book is The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov. For you religious types, I also feel like it’s one of the best explanations of the nature of God I’ve ever read. Surprisingly astute from an avowed atheist!) I feel like these two opposing views do a decent job of bracketing the impact we’ll experience due to COVID-19. Let’s start out with the good, shall we?
Coronavirus is a serious deal. If my parents, or my wife’s dad, or my grandma catch it, it could very well kill them. It’s already killed thousands, and it’s passed so easily that you could be the carrier who hurts my family, even if you don’t have symptoms. (I think it’s fair to question the morality of mandatory quarantines. However, it’s also morally valid for me to ask you to please not be the jerk who knowingly puts my mom at risk so you can be entertained or get a haircut.)
And yet, the coronavirus mortality rate is single-digit. As big a deal as it’s become, every pharmaceutical company in the world is working on a vaccine and/or cure. Gilead made the news (and got a nice stock price bump) with the first widely-publicised human vaccine trial. Their drug, Remdesivir, failed that trial…or maybe not. (Dr. Fauci even endorsed the drug this week.)
I think the first company to develop a viable therapy will make a trillion dollars off it. Between the relentless pursuit of scientific knowledge, the noble desire to save lives, and simple human greed, I think the incentives pushing scientists and corporations to get this done are overwhelming.
The moment that therapy is available, Coronavirus becomes a non-issue. It becomes nothing more serious than the flu. I say this with confidence because it’s all happened before. Our industry has had to deal with SARS, Swine Flu, and other pandemics in the past. They’re all long gone. COVID-19 will be the same.
Will we see a fear-based decrease in air travel demand, even after we get a cure or vaccine? Possibly, but I don’t think it’ll be significant. How many people do you know who chose not to fly last year because they’re scared of catching Swine Flu?
I’ve also heard speculation that demand for business travel will decrease because COVID-19 is forcing companies to realize they can get a lot done with platforms like Zoom. I think this will account for a slight reduction in demand after we get a coronavirus cure or vaccine. However, if there is one thing this crisis has taught me, it’s that there is no substitute for in-person contact. Video chat is great when you don’t have better alternatives, but I can’t think of many types of business I’d rather do remotely than in person.
I believe that the demand for business travel will skyrocket the moment coronavirus is no longer a threat.
I’ve also heard suggestions that the demand for leisure travel will take a long time to recover. People who aren’t working won’t have money to spend on travel, people won’t have time to travel because they’ll need to spend every minute working to make up for lost wages, and people will be scared to travel.
Frankly, I think all those ideas are bullshit.
Nobody likes this mandatory shelter-in-place stuff. I think homeschooling has the potential to be a great option for many families, but it has to be planned for. Being forced to do it without notice is a bit of a nightmare. Plus, most families aren’t even doing true homeschool. They’re doing remote school, which is the worst of all worlds. Basically, I think most families are already crawling up their walls.
I believe families want nothing more than to get out of their own house and go somewhere, ASAP! The leisure travel industry that was booming before COVID-19 wasn’t funded entirely by people who make good financial decisions. Much of it, just like everything else in our economy, was funded by consumer debt…in the pursuit of “experiences rather than things, dude.” Like it or not (and I don’t) people still have access to debt. They will use whatever means necessary to get out of the house once this is all over.
In my mind, this boils down to the fact that demand for air travel hasn’t actually decreased at all. In many cases, this pandemic has amplified that demand.
The only reason we’re flying mostly empty aircraft around the country is that governments have imposed artificial restrictions to try and “flatten the curve” of coronavirus infections. It’s probably right to have some restrictions for now, but I believe demand for all types of air travel will rebound the moment those restrictions go away.
Remember that at the end of 2019, every airline in the country was growing. My company had hundreds of jets on order. Even the ULCC Frontier was working to triple the size of its fleet. This means demand grossly exceeded capacity, and was growing. That demand didn’t stop existing because of governmental restrictions. It was only temporarily suppressed.
Speaking of governments, I believe that our elected officials at most levels are desperate to end these restrictions. With people not out earning and spending as much money, governments aren’t bringing in as many tax dollars. They need that money to survive.
The stimulus money the airlines got protects employees through the end of September. If things aren’t picking up by then, the airlines won’t be able to afford to pay everyone. October 1st would start with a massive wave of furloughs.
However, think about what this would mean for politicians like Donald Trump. His initial reaction to COVID-19 deserves at least some criticism, our economy is in shambles, and unemployment is higher than it ever was under Bush or Obama. If tens of thousands of airline employees, including thousands of military veterans, all lose their jobs one month before the general election, the incumbent President can kiss his job goodbye.
The President only has three ways to keep his job:
- We get a cure or vaccine and he dumps billions of dollars into rapidly producing and distributing it. Problem solved…immediately.
- We don’t have a solution, but he doesn’t want massive furloughs so Congress authorizes another round of stimulus money, effective 1 October. This means no furloughs for you!
The government didn’t actually have the $2T it gave out in the last round of stimulus. It just tacked those dollars onto the already unrealistically massive national debt. The economic theories that allow the government to continue its current fiscal policies allow it to do as many rounds of stimulus as it takes to float the airline industry until we do get a coronavirus cure.
- Our governments remove many of the existing travel restrictions. Healthy people will take what precautions they can and start traveling again. The economy will see an immediate jump. Infections will increase as a result, but the economy will start a ragged climb until we can reach #1.
I don’t like #2 or #3, but I don’t see any other way for our elected officials to address this crisis. In any of these cases, we pilots are generally protected. It’ll take a while for things to get back to “normal,” but the overall recovery won’t take all that long. I don’t think things will be great by the end of the year, but I think we could all be in a pretty happy place within 12 months.
I generally lean toward optimism in my life, but I have to admit that I could see things going the other way.
This disease works differently than any we’ve dealt with before. As such, we didn’t even have the tools necessary to start trying to make a vaccine until weeks after things got serious. Human clinical trials for new medications don’t usually conclude until at least 6 months after the final dose of medication. Every time there’s a new Remdesivir, it could be a half a year before we know whether it actually works or not. And only then will a company be willing to start building a manufacturing and distribution process.
Worse yet, there are signs that having beaten the disease once does not make you immune from getting it a second or subsequent time. How do you vaccinate against that?
And even when we finally get a vaccine, the world is full of scientifically and mathematically ignorant anti-vaxxers. Will they refuse a future coronavirus vaccine? Will they go back to regular life, exposing the rather large population of high-risk people to the disease? The resurgence from that could be brutal.
This whole crisis has been exacerbated by the responses from traditional and social media, and governments around the world. The moment our governments start lifting restrictions, cases and deaths will spike, whether we have a treatment or not. How do you think this works out for our leaders?
If an elected official reacts to this spike by renewing quarantine orders, it’ll piss off people who have been cooped up for ages. If that elected official decides not to reenact quarantine measures, then he or she will essentially be admitting that he or she got it wrong by ordering those restrictions the first time around. People will be pissed and that politician’s opponents will have a field day. Can you imagine the churn and turmoil we’ll see as populations fire the politicians caught in this Catch-22? Also, if any of those responses involve more stimulus, we’ll quickly find ourselves facing inflation numbers that will crush the economy in their own right.
In the meantime, our economy is in shambles. We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg on businesses failing and unemployment. It won’t be a simple matter to just start the economy up again because many of the businesses upon which it used to run will simply be gone.
The businesses that still exist will have to cut way back on all spending…including air travel. It will be long enough before airlines can get back to any semblance of a schedule that they’re going to have to furlough massive portions of their seniority lists.
Before all this happened, Delta made big news by announcing that they planned to hire more than 1300 pilots by the end of 2020. Honestly, many of us wondered if this goal was realistic, curious as to whether we had the capacity to get that many pilots interviewed, hired, and trained in such a short time. For pilots who have been out of the jet long enough to need a full re-training course, or who will have to train on a new jet when they come back from furlough, I feel like the major airlines would be pretty hard-pressed to reinstate more than about 1000 per year.
Based on all this, it could be a year or more before a pharma company can start production on a viable COVID-19 treatment. Airlines would have to furlough by then, and we’d be looking at roughly one year per thousand pilots to recall everyone…once each airline finally decides that there’s enough demand to justify the increased staffing. People like my buddy Dirka who is about to retire from the Air Force might have to wait 3 years or more before the airlines can even contemplate hiring new pilots off the street. That’s a very long time.
I hope this vision of the future is too pessimistic to be real. I suspect that reality will be somewhere between the two cases I just presented. Governments are already starting to lift restrictions. I think that will cause infection rates to increase, but people will stay out anyway and take their chances. I think there are enough coronavirus treatments in development that one of them will come through sooner, rather than later. It’s not going to be especially pretty, but I don’t think it’ll be as bad as the worst prognostications say.
Before airlines furlough anyone, most of them will go through at least one “displacement” or “surplus” bid. (Your company might call this something else, but you get the idea, right?) Since they’re not flying as many widebodies, it doesn’t make sense to pay a bunch of pilots at that astronomical pay rate to sit around all month. With less flying overall, they also don’t need as many Captains.
In a displacement bid, the company announces that a bunch of positions will be going away. At my company, a pilot in a surplus position can bid for where he or she wants to get bumped down to. As long as he or she is senior enough to hold that position, he or she gets it. That bumps the most junior pilot in that category…who can displace someone else in another category. This chain reaction happens until someone gets bumped to NYC 717 FO and there’s nowhere more junior to go.
It’s not a good idea to assume that since you’re a mid-list 737 FO you can’t get bumped down to the E190, A220, or 737 FO in Oakland since your aircraft or position isn’t specifically listed on the displacement bid announcement. I highly recommend that you go into your company’s systems very soon and make sure you list as many preferences as your system allows for displacements.
In most contracts, displacements are intended to be temporary. However, if the pessimists are right, you could end up stuck in your new category for a few years. Order your preferences based on places where you’d feel okay being based for a few years if necessary. Of course, if you don’t express any preferences you’re vulnerable for “needs of the company.” That’s almost never a good thing.
Displacements aren’t always bad though. If you’re currently stuck in a jet you don’t like or at an inconvenient base, you may be able to take a displacement to something that suits you better. If desired, most contracts include provisions for you to eventually make your new position permanent, rather than getting reinstated to your old category when a spot becomes available.
Flavors of Leave
Most companies right now are offering different ways for pilots to take time off, for reduced pay, to help the company save money and keep other pilots flying. If you have a way to make this work for your family, doing so could be a service to your company (for what that’s worth) and to your fellow pilots (probably worth something.)
Military Leave of Absence (MLOA)
The most obvious type of leave for many pilots is Military Leave. Most companies right now are letting pilots take as much mil leave as they want, without counting it against their 5-year USERRA limit. The military has been desperately short of pilots for years, and it should have at least some ability to absorb a lot of us during this crisis.
Although military service doesn’t pay nearly as well as the major airlines, it pays a lot better than being furloughed. If you can get yourself onto long-term orders now, you’ll probably be able to ride through these difficulties with less disruption, even in the most pessimistic scenario.
The stimulus money that most airlines got stipulates that no company can furlough pilots before 1 October. I think it’s likely that there will be at least some furloughs effective on that day. If you wait until then to try and get long-term orders there probably won’t be any more to go around, so you should start asking about them now. You’re essentially pay-protected through the end of September, so it’d be ideal if your boss would write you orders that start on 1 October.
If I were pursuing this path, I’d consider taking some long-term orders that start soon to make sure I got some before they’re all gone. However, your specific family situation will determine whether this is a good choice for you or not.
When you approach your commander about these possibilities, realize that every other airline pilot in your unit will be thinking about the same thing. There will only be so many resources to go around, and some units (especially the ones with bad leaders) will be a little resentful of the fact that you only showed up, hat in hand, when things got bad. Be humble and make sure you contribute enough to your unit to make it a good deal for them to give you work.
Special Incentive Lines (SILs)
Many airlines are offering what my company calls a Special Incentive Line, or SIL. There are tons of names for this, but the idea is that you get paid a set number of hours (usually 50-55) to go away and not work for a month. (If the company doesn’t have much flying for you to do anyway, this is cheaper than paying you 72 hours to not fly on reserve.) Some companies are even offering SILs of 3-6 months up front. If your family can make things work on this reduced level of pay, this is a fantastic deal under current circumstances. Taking a SIL sets you up for some of the furlough prep activities we’ll discuss shortly.
Leave of Absence (LOA)
Most companies are also offering longer-term unpaid leaves of absence (LOA.) These aren’t nearly as good a deal as SILs, but if you have other ways to spend your time, taking a LOA could be worthwhile.
I considered the possibility of using a LOA to get out quickly and try to get a fun and interesting flying job before those jobs all go to people who get furloughed before me. My company requires us to get permission before flying for a competitor. I asked my ALPA reps if I’d need approval to do that while on a LOA. Apparently I would need permission, and it’s not clear whether the company would grant that permission, so I’m not rushing off to fly a Whale for someone yet. (Sadly. I’d love to spend a couple years flying the Whale!)
Your company may have different rules or policies that would allow you to fly for someone else while on a LOA. If so, it might be a good way for you to beat the rush. If you’re worried about furlough vulnerability, I’d start asking around your union and doing some discreet job hunting.
If things stay bad for long enough, even the major airlines may be forced to furlough pilots. (I have hope for my buddies at Southwest. Their company takes pride in the fact that they’ve never furloughed anyone. Their current corporate leaders aren’t the same kind of people as their legendary founder, Herb Kelleher, but I hope they’ll hold to that principle anyway!)
Most contracts require your company to give you at least some notice if you’re being furloughed. I’ll get at least 90 days notice, though people hired as few as 10 months after me will only get 30 days notice. (They’ll know they’re getting cut when they hear about me because Seniority is Everything, but some employers won’t hire an airline pilot without an official furlough notification letter in hand.)
Most contracts stipulate that your company can’t hire even a single pilot off the street until it’s at least offered to reinstate every furloughed pilot. Most contracts include a provision that allows you to defer reinstatement for up to 10 years after it’s offered. If you’re a military pilot, this is a great deal. It gives you more than enough time to earn an Active Duty retirement…while you continue to accrue seniority at your airline!
I also know of pilots who started businesses after getting furloughed in 2001, and ended up deferring reinstatement because their companies did so well. I don’t think anybody wants to get furloughed. However, if it happens, it could give you the chance to accomplish a bucket list item that you’d likely never be able to do otherwise. Start a business, go to law/medical/dental/vet school, spend a few years as a missionary pilot in Africa, etc.
It recently occurred to me that if I get furloughed, I could do an accelerated A&P Mechanic course at a technical college here in Tampa. If owning an airplane has taught me one thing, it’s that certified aircraft are too expensive to own without being an A&P. I could solve a lot of problems for myself, and pick up an incredibly lucrative side-hustle by earning my A&P.
We’ll talk more about this shortly. First, we need to make sure your family’s finances are set up to deal with you having to look for another job.
If you apply the principles that I talk about in my book, you’ll have enough savings to keep food on the table while you shop for a new job. If not, you’re going to be worried.
Even if you think you’re probably safe from getting furloughed in October, you should probably do the following between now and then:
(Actually, every pilot should be doing these things, furlough or not.)
- Figure out what you spend your money on each month. An app like Personal Capital, Mint, or YNAB can help.
- Once you see where your money is going, take a realistic look at things and try to find ways to reduce your spending.
- Dump all of your excess into savings each month.
Normally, I recommend that you maximize contributions to tax-advantaged retirement accounts first. This includes your IRA, 401K, TSP, HSA, and possibly others. However, if you’re worried about any amount of unemployment in the relatively near future, you should probably put at least a few months’ worth of living expenses into a more accessible savings or investment account. (This account is your furlough camel hump. Like a camel stores water in its hump for long treks through the desert, you need to store money in an accessible place for the desert of the real, aka: furlough due to COVID-19.)
If you want to be ultra-conservative, there are plenty of banks offering “high-yield” savings accounts with interest rates in the 1.5-2% range. I’m not a huge fan of accounts that pay so little. My wife and I started a house payoff fund last year. We invested half of it in Vanguard’s total stock market index fund (VTSAX) and half in their total bond market index fund (VBTLX.) You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s down a little this year, but that loss is only theoretical if we sell our stocks. Actually, our bonds are way up and we’ve been selling some of those to buy more stock while the market is down. Overall we’ve basically broken even. When the market goes back up, we’ll be way ahead of a regular high-yield savings account. This little house payoff fund is now also our Furlough Camel Hump.
Of course, if you’ve already filled up your Treasure Bath, you may already have enough put away that you could live on it indefinitely, whether you’re working or not. That’s the absolute best position to be in. It lets you apply for only those jobs that interest you, and reduces the stress of each job interview. If you haven’t filled up a Treasure Bath yet, now is the perfect time to figure out how to make it happen and get to work.
Alternative Pilot Jobs
Once you have your finances set up to weather the coronavirus storm, it’s time to start thinking about what you’ll do if your current employer fixes the glitch and stops paying you.
We already noted that many military pilots will have a good option. Full-time orders will provide a decent amount of money and some health care benefits. I know some pilots who even went back onto Active Duty after 9/11. Unfortunately, that also comes with a 5-day week of long workdays and the threat of deployment. If you plan to be in that job for a long time, commuting to it won’t be realistic either. You’d probably need to move your family, which comes with financial, social, and emotional costs.
Another full-time option that only opens up in case of furlough is taking a job as an Air Reserve Technician, or ART. (Check out this great BogiDope post on this topic.) These jobs aren’t protected by USERRA, so you can’t use MLOA to do them while employed by an airline. Once that company furloughs you though, all bets are off. ART jobs pay a lot better than they used to and they provide full-time work that could keep your family solvent.
Delta just approved up to 2 years of regular Leave of Absence (not MLOA) for pilots to take an ART position, which is an awesome opportunity for the right people. I’m not willing to relocate my family at this point in time, otherwise I’d be calling my buddies at Laughlin about an ART job right now. (Although, if the U-2 would hire me, we’d be packed and on our way to Cali tomorrow.)
I also suspect that any available ART jobs will get snapped up no later than 1 October. It’ll be tougher to get into one before that point if you’re actively employed by an airline. It may be worth asking your union reps and your company if you can get permission to start an ART job now while on a regular old LOA like Delta just started allowing. It gets you off the company’s books now, and hopefully saves one other pilot from furlough.
For most pilots, the military isn’t a fall-back, so we’ll be looking elsewhere. Here are some of the places that I’ll consider applying if I end up getting furloughed:
- Several of the LCC airlines like JetBlue, Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant seem like good companies where I’d enjoy working. I’d cast a wide net here, realizing that if the majors are furloughing, these companies probably are too. If at some point in the recovery these low-cost carriers are able to start hiring sooner than the majors, I at least want my application to be on file.
- I also plan to apply to a wide variety of regional airlines. They were hurting badly for pilots before all this happened, and the majors absolutely need the regionals if they want any hope at a recovery. With Compass, TSA, and likely others going under, there are a lot of pilots to fill that need. However, I suspect some regionals will need to continue hiring to keep up with demand as soon as things pick up a little.
I wish I lived in the Pacific Northwest so that I could go fly for TPN Sponsor Horizon Air. I like them as a company, I think flying their Q400s would be a fun challenge, and I think the EMB 170/175 is the best regional jet on the market right now. I also happen to love that part of the country.
I’d also definitely apply to Silver Airways. I’ve been a passenger on their aircraft several times recently and I like their operation. It’s no-nonsense and no-frills, but it seems pretty efficient. They fly to great destinations near my home, and there’s a possibility of being home every night. I wouldn’t mind flying their Saabs as a future badge of honor, and I hear their new ART-42-600s are gorgeous.
- I’d also apply to a variety of cargo carriers. I’d probably put in applications as FedEx and UPS, though I don’t think they’re hurting for people.
Atlas, Southern Air, ABX, and ATI all have contracts with Amazon. (You may know Amazon. It’s the company that has so much demand right now its signature 2-day Prime shipping orders are taking upwards of a month to arrive.) I get the feeling that they need all the pilots they can get. I’ve heard mixed reviews about Atlas, but have several friends there who are perfectly happy. My preference would be to fly the 747 for them. A furlough now might be the only chance I ever get to fly that jet.
There are a few other cargo/charter operators out there that seem like good medium-term options. Based on some research I’ve done recently, Kalitta actually sounds like it’d be a pretty nice place to spend a few years.
I feel like I’d need to approach these applications carefully. I think these cargo operators flying big metal have a pretty reliable stream of pilots from both regional airlines and foreign carriers. Most of these are very small companies where people are tight-knit, and many of them are lifers. There’d be no hiding the fact that I’m there because I got furloughed and don’t necessarily plan to stay forever. It’d take a lot of humility and work to convey the fact that I’m there because I think they’re a good company and that I genuinely intend to contribute positively to their operation.
- I’d also look into private bizjet flying and Part 91/135 operators like TPN Sponsor Jet Linx, FlexJet, and NetJets. I have a Global Express type rating, which may help. However, I’m not above flying any bizjet. One of my Icon A5 owners also has a Phenom 300. He loves it and has convinced me that I’d enjoy flying it.
I think these operators can only benefit from all of this ongoing turmoil. If a company is willing to pay for business class travel, but is worried about people getting sick from traveling on an airliner with hundreds of other working stiffs, it gets increasingly desirable to just charter a G280 for the day. Also, I feel like a lot of private owners and customers at these companies are well-enough off that their travel habits will kick right back in as soon as government restrictions go away.
- As long as I’m going wide, I’ll definitely consider stepping up by game as a ferry pilot. I’d probably start advertising a little more through my company, Hydroplane Aerospace. I’d also consider signing on with a company like National Pilot Services. They do a lot of Icon A5 deliveries. I happen to have enough A5 hours to be easier to insure than most pilots. However, I’d probably fly anything they need me to.
- The last type of job that comes immediately to mind is flight instruction. I prefer to teach advanced topics like tailwheel, seaplane, glider, etc. However, I wouldn’t say no to some primary flight instruction if it’s fun, it keeps me flying, and it brings in some money.
- I feel like I have the credentials to find a fun and lucrative flying job before I exhaust these options. However, if I got to the end and still hadn’t found something, I’d consider some of the other options I listed in Part 6 of my “I Want to Be a Pilot, But I Need Cash Now” series.
I’d also consider non-flying jobs in case of a furlough. However, my preference would be that a non-flying job be a side-hustle that fits in with a part-time flying gig from the options I’ve just listed. We’ll talk about side-hustles in just a moment.
A lot of pilots assume that getting hired by a major airline means they’ve done the last job interview of their lives. The ‘Rona heard you say that and is now winding up to smack you. Adjusting to this new reality will require a big shift in mindset.
Applying for jobs means filling out new applications and updating your resume. Hopefully you have copies from the last time you put a lot of effort into those documents. Updating your work history to include the company that furloughed you will make it obvious that you aren’t after a forever job. How are you going to word things to not sound like an opportunist jerk?
I also know a lot of pilots who stopped keeping a logbook the moment they arrived at a major airline (if they’d ever kept one in the first place.) The ‘Rona also thinks this was a bad decision. You need to update a logbook with all the flying you’ve been doing lately. But you’re going to have to work even harder on it this time.
From 2014-2019, airline hiring was a pilot’s market. Everyone needed us, and it was acceptable at many companies to show up with a less-than-polished logbook. Many pilots continue to advise that it’s okay to drop an ugly green folder full of Air Force ARMS records on an interviewer’s desk, topped with a single-page Excel spreadsheet that summarizes everything.
The market has now shifted. Every time you apply for a job, there are going to be dozens of other pilots hungry for that position. Many of them will have immaculate logbooks. It will no longer be good enough to just dump your garbage on a potential employer’s desk and expect them to welcome you with open arms. Many of the companies I mentioned above are known for giving extra attention to pilot logbooks. You need a polished product that looks like you actually care about being a professional pilot.
For many people, this could involve transcribing into a quality electronic logbook. (I reviewed a bunch of options a few years ago.) Military pilots who have been hesitant to use the services of TPN Sponsor MilKEEP should strongly reconsider their position. Good enough is no longer good enough.
It’s probably worth having your application and resume reviewed again too. Some very experienced interview prep companies will help you navigate the difficult task of asking for a furlough job from a company you don’t plan to stay at forever. TPN Sponsors Checked and Set, and Emerald Coast Interview Consulting definitely have you covered on those fronts.
Don’t assume that whatever worked for you a couple years ago will work now. We’re in a completely different situation, and you getting hired is no longer a foregone conclusion.
Since government stimulus money will block many airlines from furloughing anyone until 1 October, it might be tempting to just ride things out and see what happens. You’re welcome to do that, but I’m a pilot. I can’t help but run my fuel numbers just one more time to make sure I’ll get to the destination with sufficient reserves.
We mentioned that most contracts require our airlines to give us some advanced warning of furlough. I’ll get at least 90 days notice, while our more junior pilots will only get official notification 30 days out. In my opinion, the more notice the better.
If my company is going to furlough me, they might as well do it on October 1st. This means they’d have to notify me by July 1st. Personally, my plan is to have absolutely everything ready to publish on that day. If I get my letter, the first thing I’ll do (after cursing COVID-19 yet again) will be to log in to airlineapps.com and pilotcredentials.com and go live with a wave of applications. If I’m applying to other places as well, I’ll submit those applications too.
My availability date will be 1 October. My hope is that between having 90 days notice, a decent resume, and very polished applications, I’ll get noticed right away and called for at least some interviews before all the lazier pilots get their acts together.
This means I have just two months to dust off my applications, resume, and logbook. With as little flying as my company is doing, two months should be ample time. However, my motivation levels also aren’t as high as I’d like lately. I’ll have to work hard to make sure I have everything ready to go.
Pilots junior to me might not get official furlough notification until 60 days after I do. However, since Seniority is Everything, they will know for certain that they’re eventually being furloughed. For companies that require a furlough letter before they’ll interview a pilot, these junior pilots will be out of luck. Otherwise, it may be worth the risk for them to submit applications early, without official furlough notification, knowing that they’ll be on the street at least by the day that I get the boot.
My application will be stronger now than it was when I got hired in 2016. I have another 2000-ish hours of Part 121 time. A few hundred of those are even Pilot in Command hours as an A220 Captain. I’ve been doing a fair amount of interesting instructing and ferry flying in the Icon A5, and that will also look good. I’ve also published a book for pilots. I don’t know if I’ll emphasize that directly on my applications, but it might come up as an interesting talking point.
However, I’m not going to assume any of that is enough to get me hired somewhere. I believe that each of us needs to continue doing whatever we can to be more attractive to potential future employers.
If you don’t have any noteworthy career-related entries for the past few years, you might want a fresh item or two on your resume. I’d consider adding a pilot rating, working on or completing a degree or other valuable training course, and perhaps doing some volunteering. I recently discussed a bunch of good options in a post on BogiDope.
As part of prepping my resume for flight instructor jobs, and other flying jobs, I’ll be renewing my Master CFI Accreditation with the National Association of Flight Instructors. This accreditation lasts for two years, and can be used to renew your CFI certificate with the FAA. I’ve renewed my accreditation once, but I just couldn’t find the motivation last year. (The application process requires some time and energy, and you have to wait for a human to evaluate your application.) I have no excuse now. I’ll be putting my package together and submitting it soon.
What else can you do to make your application stand out?
Stepping Up Side-Hustles
I think a lot of people use “lack of time” as an excuse for not starting a side-hustle. For a family with kids and activities, I could see this as a realistic argument. However, if you’re flying less now and/or looking at a future furlough, you’re going to have lots of extra time on your hands. If you haven’t already, now is truly the time to get started on a side-hustle. If you have started one already, now is the time to put in the energy that will make it grow large enough to make up for some of your other lost income.
Just as it would be a bad idea to only start applying for flying jobs the day your furlough starts, it’d be a bad idea to wait start a side-hustle until that day too. I don’t know many business ventures that are profitable from day one. Whether you’re doing a product or a service, there is plenty of setup and at least some type of learning curve to get through. You’re far better off using the months between now and a potential furlough to get the setup done, so that you can hit full throttle when you really need the income.
I’ve been trying to use my extra time to write a little more. I plan to focus more on writing projects that pay better than this one. I want to write several more books, and I’m looking forward to diving more into that.
Writing is definitely something that you can do. All you need is a computer with a keyboard and some time. Any pilot who’s been flying for more than a couple years has at least some kind of valuable story to tell. I believe that military pilots today practically have a duty to tell the story of the wars that we’ve been fighting for more than two decades in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
If you can’t figure out how to start on that, let me know. I will help you come up with an outline for your story. I’ll help you edit it. I’ll even help you publish it. I’m not out to get rich off your work…I want your stories to be told! (Unless you want to do a big anthology including some of my stories. Then a bunch of authors could benefit together.)
I also have some other business ideas that I’ve just been telling myself “No!” on for years…due to that lack of time. I have one or two that seem “recession-proof” that I think could make some great money in case of a furlough. In fact, one of them could occupy enough of my time and provide enough income that it’d be tough to justify getting another flying job.
If I decide to pursue that business, I can use small pieces of free time now to file my articles of incorporation, set up bank accounts and websites, and prototype my products. If I put real energy into it, I’ll need to release it before I get furloughed, which isn’t the end of the world. If I do get furloughed, this will already be a profitable business and I’ll have ways to translate investments of my time into direct pay for my family.
I also mentioned the possibility of getting my Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) mechanic rating. I found a 14-month course at the Tampa airport. It’s a bit expensive for a skill that I don’t plan to make a full-time job. However, we have money in 529 plans, I have the post-9/11 GI bill, and we have enough cash to cover it outright if necessary. I may also look into the VA’s Vocational Rehab program to pay for some of it.
Doing this course would give me the skills (and confidence) to build aircraft, and/or work on them myself. I’ve also considered refurbishing certified aircraft as a side-hustle. There’s decent money in that market, and it’d be fun to do. Worst case, I could work as a full-time A&P for a while. The world’s mechanic shortage is as bad as the pilot shortage, if not worse. COVID-19 hasn’t decreased that demand either.
I’ve been listening to a lot of episodes of the BiggerPockets Real Estate podcast lately. I’m confident that I could learn the skills necessary to make great money (with a risk profile somewhat separate from that of the stock market) as a real estate investor. If I decided to go this way, I’d probably fly out to Colorado and beg fellow U-28A pilot Jeremy Porto to mentor me through a couple projects. I’m betting that I could trade a 50% ownership stake in a project for him to teach me through the refurbishing and renting or selling process. It’d be money well spent!
I could work on deciding my strategy and start shopping for properties right now. It’s not unrealistic to wait 30-45 days to close a real estate deal. If I start now, I could have everything planned out, make some offers, inspect the properties, and be ready to get to work on the day a furlough kicks in.
Jeremy doesn’t even fly anymore, in part because a major airline would be a pay cut compared to what he’s making as a real estate investor. I guess I could work that hard for a few years while on furlough. I’d probably also immediately start setting up systems and hiring managers so that when Delta called to bring me back to work, I could reduce the time I have to spend actively managing my properties, and reduce my income slightly by paying some other people to take care of the day-to-day for me.
One final side-hustle I’ll mention was the subject of TPN Podcast Episode 52. If you haven’t already listened to this, go do it now! This is a fun, interesting side gig with significant upside potential! It’s aviation-related and gives you an excuse to buy some fun
I don’t care how bad the economy gets, there are tons of opportunities out there for pilots like us to take advantage of if we find ourselves with extra time on our hands. I have sympathy for any pilot who has to deal with the suck of a furlough. However, that sympathy will evaporate very quickly if I hear you say that you can’t find any other way to support your family.
What I’ve described here is a lot of work:
- Getting your family’s finances in order and increasing your savings rate
- Researching a bunch of potential flying jobs
- Spinning up with a new set of applications, resumes, and a decent logbook
- Probably putting in some extra work to add relevance and recency to those documents
- Applying and interviewing at a bunch of new companies
- Pouring a bunch of energy into a side-hustle
I see the best case scenario for everyone as coronavirus going away quickly, and few additional furloughs happening. In that case, what has any of this cost you other than some time that you were probably going to waste watching TV or arguing politics and religion on social media?
At the very least, none of this will hurt you. Even if it ends up having been unnecessary, it’ll help you realize that you have some opportunities to add something fun and interesting to your life.
On the other hand, I see the worst case scenario for everyone as coronavirus causing a lasting downturn that prompts thousands of furloughs. If you’ve been implementing all of this in the meantime, it can only help your family. You’ll have added some financial turning room to allow your family to navigate the start of your furlough. You’ll have top-notch job application materials ready to go the moment you need them. Ideally, you’ll have a growing side-hustle just waiting for your full attention. You’ll be as prepared for a furlough as any of us can be.
Your other option is to blithely assume everything will be fine and roll the dice.
I hope the optimist in me gets to say “I told you so,” a few months from now. I don’t really want to deal with any of this. However, whether I want to have fun flying to spend my time on, or I need an income to support my family, I think it’s a good idea for many of us to implement the things I’ve written about today.
You’re welcome to ignore this advice. However, as a pilot I’d always have extra runway in front of me and more water in my furlough camel hump.
(Yes, I know camels don’t fill their humps with water. Thank you, though, to the Internet Police Heroes who couldn’t help commenting or contacting me about it before they finished this article! 😉 My hope is that furloughs end up being an equally imaginary concept for most, if not all, of us.)