What has life been like for cargo pilots during the pandemic?
During the pandemic, passenger planes were grounded and many pilots lost their jobs. Cargo pilots, however, still kept flying, helping to deliver goods and especially medical supplies around the world. Here, AeroTime News speaks to two pilots flying for cargo companies.
Senior first officer Felix Gottwald has been flying freighters for a European airline for over a decade, whereas 737 pilot Guillaume Demumieux switched to cargo this year after losing his job flying passenger planes.
While there have been some uncertainties, Gottwald says that he was lucky to have continued flying throughout the pandemic, unlike those pilots who have been grounded.
He explains: “There’s been that positive part of being able to work, having a job and getting paid, but also of playing your part during the pandemic to help other people survive by delivering products, and helping companies or economies keep running to a certain extent. And I think that has been a valuable contribution.”
For Gottwald, flying during the early stages of the pandemic was sometimes surreal as pilots were among the few people allowed to travel.
“The airspace was empty, the airports were empty,” he recalls. “I remember being in the middle of New York City, and the city was simply shut down. There was nobody on the streets except for me. And it's something that you're never going to experience again.”
At the start of the pandemic, changing restrictions meant schedules were often altered several times a day. Crews became wary of flying to certain destinations, such as Hong Kong.
“We had a case where a pilot tested positive and had to go to the quarantine camp, which prompted many people to say they didn’t want to fly to Hong Kong until the situation was resolved and they could be sure they would get flown out again,” Gottwald says. “And so, my company made a contract with a charter operator to send a business jet to get crew out if that were to happen again.“
Given the strict restrictions in China, Gottwald’s airline now uses Incheon (ICN) in South Korea as a base to shuttle to Shanghai (PVG). If flying to China from Europe, the crew will not stop there overnight. Instead, they will carry on to Seoul, which has meant adding crew to make sure duty limits aren’t exceeded.
Sometimes, cargo has even had to be left behind because COVID-19 procedures have eaten too much into duty times.
“On the ground in Shanghai, the aircraft needs to be disinfected, everybody needs to be separated from the ground crew and that process takes hours sometimes. Sometimes, we can't take a full load of cargo even if the cargo is there simply because of the procedures,” MD-11 pilot Gottwald explains.
For 737 pilot Guillaume Demumieux, switching to cargo from passenger flying offered a chance to return to the flight deck after a previous contract ended sooner than expected due to the pandemic.
Unlike Gottwald, Demumieux was not flying during the height of the pandemic. He was one of the many pilots forced to find other work during the crisis, turning his hand to managing a sushi restaurant.
“I waited a year before getting any interviews,” says the former Ryanair and Royal Air Maroc pilot, adding that he was interviewed for both cargo and passenger roles but decided on freight. “Cargo was the safe side because of the expansion during COVID-19. While the others stopped flying, cargo carried on during the crisis.”
Demumieux, who began flying freighters in March 2021, flies routes within Europe, transporting mainly parcels, but also some livestock, such as valuable racehorses. He appreciates the benefits of his new role, notably the lack of human passengers.
He explains: “One of the benefits of flying cargo is that there are no passengers, so you have fewer problems. You’re mostly on time because you don’t have to wait for late passengers, or to offload luggage if someone doesn’t turn up.
“Safety is always the first priority. But if you’re flying passengers, your next priority is getting them to their destinations. You don’t have that thinking with cargo. Boxes don’t complain if you have to divert.”
With cargo flights predominantly taking place at night, the airspace is also quieter, which helps flights to depart and arrive on time.
MD-11 pilot Gottwald agrees that cargo is easier than passengers. “Once the aircraft is filled up with all the cargo, in most cases you can just leave. You don’t have to wait for that last passenger.”
First officer Demumieux also appreciates the extra time off that has been afforded to him by working in cargo. In comparison to his old role, it does mean more overnight stays and time away from home, but he typically only flies eight days a month.
However, adjusting to the different hours required for the night flights has been tough. “What I found most difficult was to find my own work-life pattern, how to eat and sleep at odd times,” says Demumieux. “Everyone has a different way. It took me a couple of months to find my pattern.”
Gottwald was only supposed to fly cargo for three years, but it’s now been over a decade. In particular, Gottwald likes that the cargo operation is smaller than the passenger airline he previously flew for.
He says: “I've flown with all my colleagues multiple times, so you know what to expect, you know the family history, what they like to eat when you go for dinner. It's a nice feeling for me to get that sense of comradeship, that we're working together as a team.”
Despite the cargo business booming during the pandemic, Gottwald says there are still uncertainties, especially as his airline is reducing the overall number of freighters in its fleet and therefore, on paper, has more pilots than it needs.
The current pandemic aside, Gottwald adds that the lean times in cargo tend to be more severe than the downturns on the passenger side.
He says: “If you look at the passenger business, it's fluctuating as well. But it's not that severe. In the cargo business, it's either on or off.”
Demumieux is happy in his choice of a cargo role. For him, a stable, permanent contract is more important than whether he flies passengers or cargo. “I feel pretty safe as the cargo business has never been so great, we fly more than ever.”
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