As layoffs loom, pilots face difficult future

Thousands of pilots across the country are facing pink slips in a matter of weeks unless the airline industry receives more financial aid from the federal government. For many of them, flying has been their dream since they were kids, and the crisis in the industry has left pilots young and old stuck in a holding pattern — either hoping for a miracle or eyeing the exit.

On Thursday, executives from the major U.S. airlines met with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in an attempt to secure more emergency funding. The meeting included CEOs Doug Parker of American Airlines, Scott Kirby of United and Southwest's Gary Kelly.

TSA passenger checkpoint numbers fell from nearly 2.3 million on March 1 to just 90,000 by mid-April, amid pandemic lockdowns and public health concerns. Passenger travel has since recovered somewhat, but at its best has been no more than half of pre-pandemic levels.

Much of the airlines' labor costs during the pandemic has been funded by the $25 billion Payroll Support Program passed as part of the government's coronavirus relief package in March. As a condition of that funding, airlines agreed not to institute any involuntary layoffs or furloughs until Oct. 1.

Baked into the agreement were expectations that the virus would be under control by the fall. Now, the deadline is looming, but there is no clear breakthrough on the medical or legislative front. Even some industry veterans admit they won’t fly until there is a safe and effective vaccine.

“We need the flying public,” said Marc Himelhoch, an active pilot for a major American airline. “The course we’re on is unsustainable.”

For many pilots, their calling has been public service: ferrying passengers safely to new jobs, birthdays, reunions and vacations. They have made sacrifices, logged thousands of hours of flying time, and paid out of pocket for instruction.

Now, that same public is afraid to fly — and lawmakers and aviation experts can’t come to an agreement on how to protect the nation’s airlines, nor the hundreds of thousands of workers whose livelihoods depend on the industry. Air travel won’t fully recover until 2024, the International Air Transport Association estimates.

“Being an airline pilot is more than just a job. I met my husband while working, and I had my first baby while we were pilots. What I do for a living makes up so much of who I am,” wrote Karen Lacy, a first officer at an airline, in a post on the pilot’s union website. “And today I know that on Oct. 1, I will be out of a job.”

Over 38,000 furloughs have been announced for pilots, flight attendants and airline employees, according to the latest figures tracked by Aero Crew News, an airline employment site.

Some pilots, especially more junior ones who are at greater risk of furlough in the seniority-based system, are now considering applying for other kinds of transport work.

“A lot of us are interested in going to work in nonflying positions for companies that we would like to fly for when the industry recovers — such as driving trucks for FedEx, UPS or Amazon,” said a pilot for a regional carrier who asked that his name be withheld, since he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

That’s a significant comedown for the prestigious and profitable world of commercial air travel.

The potential drop in pay is appreciable, about $1,500 a month — the cost of an average monthly mortgage payment, according to the Census Bureau.

In 2019, the median wage for airline pilots, co-pilots and engineers was $174,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the meantime, pilots are focusing on cutting expenses to the bone and delaying or deferring moving or buying a new home.

In a statement to NBC News, the Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest pilot union, warned of the cost to families and communities from lost wages for furloughed pilots if the Payroll Support Program is not extended. The union also highlighted how the costs to recall and retrain furloughed pilots could slow the recovery of aviation and travel sectors.

“There is no way to avoid it,” the pilot for the regional carrier said. “The company is going to decide how many people they are going to cut, and if your number is on the list, that’s kind of it.”

There are a few standard go-to options for a commercial pilot, especially in the corporate sector. Pilots are needed for air transport of goods, which has seen some demand increase from a surge in e-commerce during the pandemic. There’s work to be had in the air, from remote pipeline inspection to banner towing, the difficult-to-break-into world of private jets, or flight instruction.

“It depends on how much you’re willing to suck up your pride and take a job beneath your qualifications,” Himelhoch said.

With tens of thousands of pilots all facing the same deadline for furloughs and layoffs, competition for any related job will be fierce.

“It is not uncommon to see 500-plus people applying for a job,” wrote Anthony Lorenti, a former pilot for a regional carrier, in an online comment. “Ground-based jobs are swarming with applicants.” Lorenti could not be reached for further comment.

Other pilots are reaching back into their past, renewing their real estate or insurance license, or starting small businesses such as a coffee shop or landscaping, said Cheryl Cage, an aviation career consultant. Many pilots develop side businesses during their down time, and developing those businesses may be the first thing they do if they can't fly for a living.

A career pivot represents a special challenge for people in their 40s or 50s who have spent years in the air doing a specialized task that doesn't easily transfer, especially during a time of historic unemployment. But an experienced pilot has a lot of things to offer if they’re presented the right way, Cage said.

“Pilots have a lot of innate talent. They’re good in an emergency, work well in a team, communicate well with others. They have a lot to offer,” Cage said. “If you understand the process, how people make hiring decisions, what tools you need to get your name in front of decision makers ... your chances go up dramatically. There are jobs out there.”

“Pilots will do what they need to do to support their families,” Cage said. “They’ll be Uber drivers if they have to until they find something more permanent.”