Published on February 15th, 2021 | by FII Reader


An Open Letter from an Airline Pilot

I’m a pilot and like so many thousands of other workers in the airline and aviation sector this past year, I’ve watched with grave concern and fear not only for my job but also for the industry that has been decimated with the collapse of travel.

I was on a flight yesterday. I have been on close to 70 flights as a passenger since this pandemic began and all travel has been necessary for me to carry out my work. Every time I board, I cast my eye down the cabin and even after a year of this, it still shocks me every time to see how empty the plane is and my heart sinks. Yesterday evening was no different.

As someone that works in aviation, one of the privileges of the job is crossing paths with passengers in airports and hearing their story and their reasons for travelling. It always amazes me how forthcoming people are in giving their reasons for travelling, even more so this past year. In this past year alone, I have met countless medical professionals travelling between Ireland and the rest of the world to provide critical care to hospitals that are overwhelmed, I have met people travelling to care for sick family, to attend the funeral of a loved one or who have just left their grieving family behind to return home after being at the funeral of a parent. On the other hand, I have met a number of highly specialised professionals – wind turbine engineers, marine engineers, technicians for the maintenance of hospital machinery. All a stark reminder of the size of our little island and our need to reach out internationally to gain access to the skills and services that we can’t provide for ourselves.

I have always been acutely aware of how important aviation is – everyone has a story or a reason to travel. However, yesterday evening on this flight as a passenger, I was starkly reminded of just how crucial and critical a role aviation plays in serving our island nation.

Shortly before the door was shut on the flight yesterday, a passenger was rushed on carrying a box that caught my attention. There was a sense of urgency about their presence and how delicately he carried this box and placed it on the seat next to him. This box contained an organ from the UK for a transplant in Ireland. It immediately struck me then, just how vital our connectivity is as an island nation. Without this vital transport link to and from our island the organ may not have been able to make it in time for the recipient.

Let me say that again, this transport link is just that – vital. It could have been literally life or death to that particular individual and their loved ones awaiting such precious cargo to arrive on our little island.

It stuck with me for the duration of the flight and I wondered, what if that particular flight was not there and more importantly, what would have happened with that

organ and that individual waiting on it if it could not have been transported at that moment. It’s a time sensitive piece of cargo – a ferry journey from London with this organ would have taken 10+ hours if the timings matched to the ferry departure – much longer if they did not. Flights in and out of Ireland, contrary to what the government and media have portrayed these past few weeks, are at a historic low with historically low numbers of passengers on board and it then crossed my mind – the reality is that these vital international connections are at a serious risk of disappearing in the not too distant future.

If you speak to any of my colleagues across any part of the aviation sector in Ireland – they will be able to give you numerous reasons as to why this industry is such an integral part of our economy – many of these reasons are greater than the direct jobs within aviation but also across the entire tourism industry here on our island which we so heavily rely on. The entire aviation sector in Ireland supports 143,000 jobs here (IATA, 2020). Additionally, numerous other sectors and industries are heavily dependent on the presence of air transport to support their business and it often underpins their reasons for establishing on this island on the periphery of Europe.

That’s exactly what we are, a tiny island nation on the edge of Europe who so heavily rely on goods, services and people beyond our borders for our economy to function. Without the vital air transport links that our aviation sector provides, our little island is getting closer and closer to losing so many international ties and links; we have countless multinationals across a myriad of industries that keep our economy propped up and functioning.

In the course of my commute to the UK several times a month since the start of the pandemic, it has been very clear to me all along just how unviable the aviation sector in Ireland has become at present. Almost all flights that I have been on in the last year have been so quiet and surely uneconomical to run. However, our airlines continue to operate vital services (possibly at a loss) so that we as citizens have a link to the outside world and to ensure the flow of goods and services within our economy, despite receiving no significant or targeted support from the State.

Maybe you’re not aware of this but take a look in your fridge and take note of where most of the items that you consume are from. Much of the food we eat cannot be sourced in Ireland and even less can be sourced during our winter season. As an airline pilot in this past year alone, I have flown Norwegian salmon, Argentinian beef, Spanish tomatoes, Egyptian strawberries and Mexican avocadoes, to name but a very few. Not to mention the hundreds of tonnes of essential medical supplies from every corner of the world back to Europe that have been crucial in keeping our overwhelmed health care providers protected. Airlines across the world have been stepping up and increasing cargo capacity in order to support vital supply chains due

to the lack of regular scheduled passenger flights which would ordinarily carry such cargo. Without these efforts, we could possibly be witnessing empty shelves, a shortage of raw materials for manufacturing and critical medical supplies.

I wanted to bring this example of the organ being transported to you all as just one of the many reasons as to why the aviation sector in Ireland needs to be supported by the Irish government and it needs to happen urgently. The situation that I witnessed yesterday evening was just one of possibly thousands of critical and essential journeys that people are making at the moment.

This past year has been distressing for anyone working in aviation and its associated industries. However, these past few weeks in particular have been a much greater cause for concern for reasons far greater than the many jobs that are at risk. At present, the government and media have portrayed travel as the cause of all our problems these past few weeks as we navigate our way through the third surge of this virus. This simply is not true; the most recent HSPC data for the 14 days of 27/01/2021 to 09/02/2021 would confirm that 0.52% of total cases in those 14 days were associated with travel (this figure is inclusive of imported cases and their close contacts within the State). However, this is in stark contrast to the proportion of cases that were directly acquired within our healthcare settings; 12.6% for this same period (does not include close contacts outside of those healthcare settings, so the true number could well be higher). In effect, the data shows that the number of cases developing within our healthcare settings are 24-fold that of the number of travel related cases for the same 14-day period.

The flight shaming and negative portrayal of travel in the media at present is nothing short of a distraction from the mismanagement of this crisis to date and the appalling lack of funding and resources that our healthcare system has. I should point out that this is not the issue of our frontline healthcare workers who are working tirelessly and relentlessly, but rather the government’s inability to manage our healthcare system – even in the best of times.

Almost nobody is travelling right now and the spotlight is on the airports at the moment but a major contributor of our current cases of COVID is in fact within our poorly managed health system.

To paraphrase Willie Walsh in an article today (RTE news) “Ireland was the land of a hundred thousand welcomes” but please don’t turn it into the land of no welcomes and that it will cost you thousands if you do have to come here for some important reason.

We should be calling on the government, opposition and all political leaders in this country to put politics aside for once and to focus on this crisis that is staring us in the face and support our aviation and tourism sector.

Ireland has always been a leader and innovator in the aviation sector but it is very close to failing if the government don’t step up and take serious, appropriate action immediately. Without the correct support, our airlines will be forced to begin removing aircraft (and with them, jobs) from Ireland and begin investing in other countries across Europe where state aid has been made available. This virus and the vaccine rollout have been better managed at national level in many other countries and it is these countries who will now see the benefits of a faster recovery as airlines begin to shift their focus to these regions and their tangible assets such as aircraft which can be relatively easily pulled from one market and placed into another, better supported one.

Our politicians need to act now or risk forever being remembered as the Government who through their inaction allowed the aviation industry here to rot and the subsequent knock-on impact that this will have on the economy. Aviation was crucial to our recovery from the last recession but at the rate that it is now being left to regress, it’s looking highly unlikely that aviation will be there when this ends. Government and media need to stop deflecting the problem of COVID-19 onto aviation and take proportional measures to target the major contributors as evidenced by their own data and findings. It is the only industry here that is being subjected to more and more restrictions being imposed upon it but with no meaningful measures being taken to support the industry.

Finally, the next time you read an article shaming people who have travelled or travel itself. I would urge you to consider the government’s classification of what is an essential and non-essential trip. There are virtually no people getting off airplanes here currently after their two-weeks of holiday in the sun, it could more than likely be your neighbour or your colleague returning to Ireland having gone home to care for a sick family member, attend a funeral or having travelled to receive medical care which is not available to them in this State and the plane that carried them may well be carrying some of the food that’s on your table or some life saving cargo.

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