United By Wings
Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Never before has this title been more appropriate. Although aviation has suffered many a crisis (9/11, the ash cloud, SARS, MERS, the Recession, to name just a few in my lifetime) previously and managed to weather the storm, COVID-19 has had and continues to have a devastating effect on the aviation industry. Not only to airlines, having seen several names already fall to this virus and many others struggle to survive each day, but also to the professionals who work within the industry.
Pilots, cabin crew, ground staff, engineers, and a whole lot more of my colleagues and friends within the industry are facing endless months of furlough, unpaid leave, and potential redundancy as airlines battle to save themselves in this turbulent time. With some of the biggest names planning to cut the jobs of approximately a third of their staff, it goes without saying that for those of us in this industry, it is an incredibly difficult time.
Before I go further, I just want to express that in no way do I believe the aviation industry to be the only one suffering. I am of course devastated by the immense loss of life caused by COVID-19 across the world, and am deeply concerned for many of the industries suffering across the world. In particular those in the hospitality industry, and (particularly as an ex performing artist) the Arts. These economies are too impacted by the lack of tourism in our country under lockdown restrictions, and are directly struggling with the practicalities of a 2 metre social distancing rule. This blog is not meant to suggest we are suffering more than others, but simply to provide a view point of what it is like working within the travel and tourism industry during this time (as understandably this is my background).
At the start of this pandemic, I remember thinking that the long term effects of a country wide lockdown (whilst necessary to ensure lives of the public were preserved), were not only going to be hugely damaging economically, but also on the mental health of the nation. No more so than for the aviators among us. All of a sudden, not only were the majority of us suddenly furloughed or taking pay cuts, but many of us were away from family and friends, in flat-shares (due to the likelihood that we had moved across the country or even the world for the job of a lifetime), facing the normal fears of having to survive a pandemic, and then all of a sudden the reality that a good chunk of us would not be returning to our jobs in the skies post COVID-19 was announced.
Don't get me wrong, it hasn't all been bad, the first week of lockdown was a novelty! The weather was beautiful, I spent most of my day sunbathing, drinking cocktails, and listening to music. I was face-timing my friends, participating in every virtual pub crawl, virtual pub quiz, and Tik Tok challenge going, and just generally treating my flat in Costa Del Windsor like an all inclusive.
Then the reality of the situation hit. This repetitive, mundane, essentially purposeless day was never-ending. Remember that film 'Groundhog Day'? Yeah that's what I felt that I was living. A fair shock to the system when I was expecting to be waking up most weeks in a completely different destination.... Monday; New York shopping, Friday; on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean, put it this way stuck in a flat in the UK wasn't the world that I'd signed up for. I was scared of the new normal, the need for masks, and plastic screening everywhere. And most of all, I missed my colleagues, and I missed flying.
I am one of the 65 million people in the travel and tourism industry to be at risk of being just another COVID-19 casualty. The reality at hand however is so much bigger than me. It's me and hundreds of thousands of others, being sent out into a job market that just doesn't exist. A highly skilled, professional, dedicated, loyal, and passionate workforce, now just fighting to understand and comprehend the unthinkable. That's before you even contemplate the 'forgotten' pilots and cabin crew. Those that were offered roles and courses in airlines, having left their previous role or been made redundant prior to this, moved their lives to new areas in the UK, to be told they were no longer required.
Every day I wake up to more news that a friend or colleague has received bad news, or is finding this time excruciatingly difficult. To all of you reading this out there feeling this way, I just want to let you know that this is normal. Some days you will feel okay, you'll be able to exercise, review your CV, cook a fresh meal, and get through the day relatively well. Some days just getting out of bed to make a cup of coffee is going to be your biggest challenge. You'll spend hours questioning 'why me?' when the truth is there is no answer to that question. You'll be sat watching the sky, trying to spot the faintest trace of an aircraft to prove the life you loved did actually exist at one point. Your phone (if you're anything like me) will tell you you've spent the majority of your day scanning flight radar, wishing and wondering when you'll ever return to the sky you love. You might find that some days you just can't stop crying through fear and heartbreak and you know what? This is all perfectly okay.
There is no set pattern for how to get through this. No rhyme or reason as to why it's happened, except all we know is it has. But it is never over. If you have wings, you're already part of a special family. A special group of people who understand the way of the world and people more than most. I'm a firm believer that this will pass, this WILL recover. The need to travel is innate, something that is within us and will never leave us. People will want to fly and we'll all be back up there before we know it thinking 'how on earth did that happen?'. If your wings have been temporarily clipped, know that they're just resting.... because you're going to need them again and when you do, you'll be back flying higher than ever, because like before, you'll have fought to have your wings and will be ready to show the world exactly why you're so special.
I'm here to say never forget your worth. I've had so many conversations with friends recently where they doubt their worth and value not only in their original airline, but in the job market they now have to negotiate. Remember you have managed to achieve the almost impossible and become part of this sky family. Whether you're a pilot who's dedicated their entire life to accumulating hours at the front of the aircraft, or cabin crew who has spent years applying for your job at the dream airline, you did it. You have proven you're resilient; you can work at any time of the day and night, whilst looking immaculate, and still sort out any number of seating issues, meal requests, complaints, and even fly through a pandemic. You have proven you're intelligent; passing around 40 exams just to even step on an aircraft as crew and have managed to resit and pass all of them year in year out to retain your place. You have proven you are respectful and well-cultured; flying people of all nationalities, religions, and faiths around the world, adapting your service to ensure that every single person regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality is respected and treated equally. You have proven you can be a firefighter, nurse, counselor, comedian, children's entertainer, fine-dining host, security officer, a team player, a leader.... the list is endless of what you can do so never, ever feel worthless. You are crew because of who you are, not who you are because you are crew.
And yet it's something that whether you choose to return after time away, keep your job, or leave the skies forever, will always define who you are. Because being an aviator will never leave you. In what other job can you chase the sunset across the world at 40,000 feet? In what other world can you sit in the galley with your friends who you met just hours ago, and put the world to right whilst the world around you is sleeping? In what other life do you witness engagements, anniversaries, honeymoons, holidays of a lifetime, births, and any other chance to make a small part of someone's life, the most memorable? The truth is that unless you've lived the life of an aviator, it's incredibly hard to understand why we want to cling on to this life that immense sacrifice is required for. Because yes, you probably did make huge sacrifices to dedicate your life to this career. The likelihood is that you've moved miles away from family and friends, missed weddings, birthdays, christenings, and forgotten what weekends are in order to have this dream life.
It's a life that is incredibly difficult to understand unless you have lived it. I think every single one of us has been told by friends that 'it'll be okay', 'it's just a job', 'don't be so down', and 'you'll get something else', which whilst it's amazing to have that amount of support, are all probably examples of the worst things you could say to us right now. Because it isn't just a job that we're facing the loss of or grieving. It's an entire lifestyle. One in which we refer to everything by a three letter code (anyone got a JNB with empty PAX loads?), have best friends all over the world, some of which we've never met before, and one in which we are blessed to experience the beauty of connecting the world and people day in day out. How do you even begin to replace that?
My only advice to anyone right now in this awful situation is to surround yourself by people who understand exactly what you're going through. We all know the phrase 'united by wings'... well now is the exact time to prove that we are that. We need each other now more than ever. Despite the amazing destinations we fly to, the incredible planes we have the chance to operate, and the diverse range of people we meet, by far the best thing about the industry, is the other people who work within it. I have been so lucky to meet so many amazing people through my career, and through the volunteering with Project Wingman that I've done, who have truly picked me up off the floor at the worst times. They haven't left my side, and have ensured my life during this fairly suffocated time is full of inspiration, laughter and love and I truly hope I do the same for them.
To my sky family, whether you work on the ground or in the air, I want to say that no matter your airline, uniform, nationality and home country, I am here for you. Message me, call me, come and sit in my garden for a gin, whatever you need in your darkest of days, I will be there for you. But please know that you are never, ever alone. We need each other now more than ever.... remember those 3 am galley chats that changed your life? Well we're going to do them, but just sat on the ground. We are truly a family, and no matter what happens, or what virus decides to stop the world, we will always be that.
Keep positive my family. One day, every single one of us will be looking back at this time from our seat in the flight deck, or on a jump seat, knowing that despite everything, we always had and will have each other. And remember, to have faith, because when everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it