A social media campaign that happened almost by accident has resulted in worldwide backing for the airline sector and a well-deserved AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award for one Senior Captain from Virgin Atlantic

It began as a suggestion from his son. But, before long, Captain Chris Pohl’s foray into social media had morphed into a viral campaign which encouraged people the world over to support aviation during the coronavirus crisis.

Chris has been flying since he was 18. After joining Virgin Atlantic 27 years ago, he is now one of the airline’s most senior captains with the responsibility of training pilots on the Airbus A330 and the Airbus A350. But it was his Instagram postings that propelled him into the public eye.

‘Buy Airline Tickets Like You Bought Toilet Paper’ caught the public’s attention as well as the focus of the global aviation community. And to think that, a year ago, Chris had never heard of Instagram.

“I wasn't on Instagram until my daughter introduced me to it probably 12 to 13 months ago. She was playing around with a phone as young teenage girls do and I said to her, what are you doing? She said, I'm on the ‘gram’ dad, and she showed me Instagram. It was just pictures of girls and handbags and I said, well, that doesn't interest me. She said, no, there's other stuff there. And she showed me aeroplane pictures. I went, okay, maybe there is something for me.” 

As a result, about the time of the first lockdown, Chris was putting pictures of planes on Instagram and discovering the value he could bring to the platform despite the uncertainties of the pandemic. It was then that his son gave him the idea for a social media campaign.

“My son, who's really into Instagram, said, there's a guy on Instagram called ‘dude with a sign’ and he holds up a cardboard sign with quotes on it. He said, why don't you do one about running out of toilet paper?”

You may recall that in the early days of lockdown, people started panic-buying things like toilet paper, afraid that these essentials would entirely run out (they didn’t).

Chris says: “So, we put this idea together of an out-of-work pilot stuck on the ground saying, ‘buy airline tickets like you bought toilet paper’ and it resonated throughout the world. Because everybody knew what I was trying to get at. I was sending a very, very serious message. But it was in a very fun way of saying, Here I am, I'm an airline captain, I'm stuck on the ground. If you go and buy an airline ticket that will give trust in the industry and trust in travel and tourism, and we can all come back flying again.”

He adds: “It was a funny idea and I think it echoed around the whole world because most places in the world, they were running out of toilet paper at the start of the pandemic and supermarkets were empty.”

As for the impact of COVID, Chris says that “the message from the campaign is still very relevant today” because the airline industry is still in the throes of rebuilding a solid foundation.

Thanks to his social media campaign, Chris has been able to connect with people from around the world, including young and veteran aviators, who have found encouragement and support in his content. And while all sectors face huge challenges, he believes in the industry’s resilience and its ability to bounce back.

“Aviation is always going to be there, we're always going to need aviation. You need a holiday just as much as I do. People need to get those business communications. Zoom is great, but I'd much rather be speaking to you in person. So, people still need those business contacts, people still want to visit their family, and people all need a holiday. So, aviation will come back, we'll come back with a boom.”

“Opportunity is waiting on the other side of turmoil” is the sentiment held by Chris. “So many pilots lost their jobs unnecessarily through no fault of their own. A year ago, I was flying the A340, and now the A340 doesn't exist anymore. So, any pilots that were flying in A340 are currently grounded, waiting to come back and fly a two-engine aircraft.”

He adds: “In the pandemic, my skill is social media and I wouldn't have thought of doing this in my wildest dreams over a year ago. There's no way I'd be online doing podcasts and media events and the internet. I didn't even know what Instagram was.

“Chaos creates opportunity and right now, aviation is in chaos, but every time there's been any chaos, it's come back bigger and better than before. Just like when we've had the credit crunch of September 11th, when we've had the volcanic ash encounters, aviation has always been back bigger. This has been a huge downturn for aviation. But I can also see a huge return as well.”

Chris goes on to point out that 50% of the world's airline pilots are over 50 years of age, a majority of whom won’t return to the job. He predicts that, in two years, 25% of pilots will not be around thus creating a pilot shortage. If the industry returns to pre-COVID levels, there will be 25% more job opportunities for young pilots wanting to fly.

However, looking at Chris’s earlier career, he explains that his father played a profound role in building his love for aviation from the time he was 12-years-old. He says that the instant he fell in love with aviation was like “one of those moments that stay with you for life”.

“My father said to the flight attendant, my son Christopher wants to see the cockpit. I didn't even know what a cockpit was. But before I knew I was in the cockpit - I was strapped into the jump seat behind the Captain by the flight engineer in those days. And next thing I knew we were rumbling down the runway at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport. And as the aircraft lifted into the sky, I just was so excited.

“I was completely mesmerized by the whole experience. And when we got airborne, I remember the three of them looked at me after they've done their checks. And they said, so what do you think of that? And I was a 12-year-old shy boy and I just looked at them dumbfounded. I said, Is this your job? They all laughed at me, which isn't easy on a 12-year-old shy boy and I got a bit shyer. And they just said, we do this for a living. I said, Can I do it? I got the normal thing that I tell kids today, do well at school, listen to your parents and one day you too can be an airline pilot, but I never did anything else but become an airline pilot. That's all I wanted to do, and that's all I've ever done.”

A well-deserved accolade

But Chris’s love of aviation dates back to before that magical time in the cockpit. He recalls that every birthday and each Christmas, he “received aeroplanes, model airplanes, books on airplanes. And I didn't realize this, but my dad actually wanted to become a pilot. But in his early 20s, he had an accident on a building site. He's a builder, and a three-inch nail went into his right eye and that was it. He was blinded in his right eye for life. And so that was his aviation career gone. He obviously didn't push me to become a pilot, but he always had that interest in aviation. So everything was aviation.

“We used to go to the airport early to go and visit relatives to at the airport just so we could watch the airplanes take off and land. So, I think it was like instilled in my father. And also when I started going down that route for a career, one of my best friends at school, his dad was an airline captain. And I remember having a conversation with him about, can I really do this? And he said, yeah, absolutely, 100%. So I sort of followed in his footsteps as well.”

Recently, AeroTime CEO Richard Stephenson was delighted to present Chris with an AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award for his commitment and contribution to the industry.  Richard said: “It was a real pleasure to present this award to Chris.  It is so important to recognize the significance and impact of his efforts.  Our Global Executive felt that the support he has given and the positivity he has shared with so many people during the pandemic is really something we wanted to acknowledge. Congratulations Chris and thank you for all that you do.”

In response, Chris said: “Wow, that's blown me away. And again, when my father is watching this, you'll put another tear in his eye. And in the one that works…Thank you so much.”