While many in the airline industry have undoubtedly been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, often forgotten are the teenagers and young adults just beginning their journey in aviation. In the summer of 2017, I began my flight training at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. Professors called our graduation era the pilot’s ‘golden age’ of hiring. Estimates ranging from 500,000-600,000 new pilots needed in the next two decades rang loudly in classes as small as private pilot ground school.
Then we encountered March 2020 with the news of an international pandemic and I swiftly realized my dream was more far-fetched than I had previously understood. In April, the Embry-Riddle flight line closed indefinitely for the first time in the history of the school. Closed down for a month, the air around Daytona Beach fell silent and eerie without the hum of training aircraft.
Students returned eagerly to the ERAU flight line in May greeted by new requirements such as, mandatory masks in all phases of flights and the sanitization of all aircraft surfaces inside the cockpit. This was the tip of the spear to combat the spread of COVID-19 on the ERAU flight line. It felt different but the measures instilled confidence and let us return to a sense of normalcy in a world that was anything but. Being able to return to the cockpit helped instructors stay employed and kept students learning. I finished my initial commercial single-engine certificate in Juneamidst the new guidelines and regulations in a world that seemed to change daily. Shortly afterwards, I learned that ExpressJet Airlines, where I had my first conditional job offer, had lost its contract with United. I was crushed. ExpressJet was, and still is, my top choice for a regional carrier and seeing them lose that contract really made the impact of COVID-19 personal.
For past semesters and years, the career fair at ERAU was a bright circle on many flight students’ calendars. Coming onto the floor of the fair, you sensed a busy and enthusiastic vibe. Now, that energy is replaced by endless Zoom calls with a constant, uncomfortable, lingering fear of unemployment in the air. At many flight schools and aviation universities across the nation, student pilots dreamt of their first airline interview or first type rating only to have their dreams dimmed by the current state of the aviation industry. Aviation has taken a backseat for some while the world battles and recovers from this deadly virus.
I spoke to Trevor Martinez, a senior flight student at Embry-Riddle who told me, “COVID delayed my flight training which set back each additional rating I wanted to obtain. It has been incredibly hard to find an instructor job. I still have not found one.” Trevor intended to begin instructing in fall but still has not been able to find full-time work as a CFI in Daytona Beach. Despite these challenges, Trevor is optimistic about future job prospects. “The industry, as a whole, is purely crawling towards the light at the end of tunnel. I think that after the pandemic dies down, there is a huge built-up travel demand that will send the industry booming. The issue right now is that it is a waiting game, but nobody knows exactly how long it will be.” Trevor shares the sentiment with many pilots and professors around ERAU. Professors have always done their best to keep spirits up, as I imagine some of our readers’ professors and mentors did in the post-9/11 era or in the midst of the 2008 recession.
What does this mean for students? Arguably, freshmen on campus have felt the impact of the pandemic the least from a perspective of job opportunity. Freshmen, with three or more years left in school, may almost avoid the backlog of hiring and feel less of an impact on their flight training. Seniors, and those recently graduated, have felt the impact the worst: plenty of newly minted certificated flight instructors (CFI) and commercial pilots cannot find work because the usual CFI jobs and low-hour commercial jobs are being held by persons who would usually be upgrading to higher-hour jobs.
Pavan Sawilani, a fall 2020 graduate of Embry-Riddle, commercial multi-engine-rated pilot, and citizen of Aruba, spoke about the impact COVID has had on his job search. “My plan was to get my CFI done through Embry-Riddle and build hours instructing with ERAU, then apply for a green card to work for a regional. COVID kept me at home through the entirety of summer 2020.” Instead Pavan began work on his Master’s in Business Administration at Embry-Riddle in the spring of 2021 and remains hopeful for the industry post-COVID. “I believe the industry will be back to almost full-fledged hiring by the end of 2022,” he added. This sign of hope from Pavan is one many pilots share at Embry-Riddle.
Many students have been challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic. I have had to overcome hurdles I never expected. I walked onto campus during one of the most optimistic and thrilling markets in aviation history. These bumps in the road will only make us better pilots and stronger people. While some will delay their flight training or put it on hold completely, the sky will once again call most of us and our dreams of flying will become reality.
Disclaimer: All interviews were conducted adhering to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University COVID-19 Protocols