By Jennifer Cairns 02 Nov 2022 10 min read

The past 2 years: The reality of an ex-Emirates Captain getting back into a Post Pandemic Aviation Industry.

Meet Simon, ex-Emirates Captain, who was sadly made redundant throughout the period of Covid and has been trying to re-enter the aviation industry since. Simon has kindly shared his experience with us, to offer inspiration and ideas of what you can do if you're looking to re-enter the industry too...

 

Anyone who has experienced redundancy will know that it’s often a bitter pill to swallow the first time it happens and even with full expectation of the second occasion, it’s not a particularly easy thing to deal with.


The Covid-19 Pandemic hit all sectors of the travel industry in a big way and many thought that even operators who previously claimed to never had made a single pilot redundant would remain unaffected – which we now know wasn’t the case.

 

Being made redundant from a Middle Eastern carrier came with a set of problems and challenges that not everyone in the industry would experience. All of a sudden we were effectively homeless, as we’d sold our UK property the previous year and, as is generally the way for ex-pat pilots in the Middle East – no pilot jobs, no visa and a limited time to leave the country. So, finding a home was really the priority closely followed by school places for two kids, one of whom was a year out from his GCSE’s. The two problems were closely interlinked so as to find a suitable place to live which offered flexibility and the most employment options for an unemployed pilot as well as a catchment area for a good enough school for a teen child. There was little to no need for any pilot jobs.


In the end, we were able to secure a short term rental property for 6 months which bought us enough time to try and buy a house of our own and settle. This was courtesy of a candid conversation with the lovely lady who was assisting us with shipping our lives back to the UK – by sheer chance her sister had a house in the right area that she was willing to rent for a short period at a price well below the market rate. Not many were so fortunate.


The next challenges facing us was that as an unemployed ex-pat, there was no chance of a mortgage so a house had to be a cash buy. In real terms, we had some proceeds from the sale of the previous house, but with house prices rising that wouldn’t go far and so the reality is the Emirates Provident Fund payment, which is effectively my 9 years of pension contributions was our house. Pensions are overrated anyway it would seem.

With these items considered and dealt with it was time to get back into earning money and not digging too deep into the limited savings that we had left by this time.


This was something I was already planning for in March 2020 whilst still in Dubai as I had a lot of suspicion that redundancy was a possibility. I was in a slightly fortunate position in that I hold a Category C+E (the old Class 1) LGV licence. With the pandemic highlighting the shortage of qualified drivers, I could at least get behind the wheel and bring some money in. Things had moved on in the driving world since I had last driven 18 years previously though – the phrase ‘Recurrent Training’ is now also applied to the LGV driver! So I had to go back into the classroom to do 35 hours of recurrent training to re-validate my LGV licence. My second bit of good fortune was to do my training with a local training company that was in need of another instructor. I’m not a TRI, but I do have some training background from the Police and my previous life as a British Airways engineer so I was very grateful to be offered an instructors job with this small family firm.

This has allowed me the breathing space of earning, rebuilding an employment history without too many gaps for a hope of a return to aviation when I could. I was officially unemployed for just over a month on return to the UK. 
In the meantime, as could be expected, the Emirates pilot and more importantly, wife community took to Facebook to open support pages for all of us affected by redundancy. Many pilots had made the decision to investigate the LGV and truck driving option and I was able to advise several of my colleagues in the most efficient and cost effective way to gain their licences and where to get started. Many other pilots came through the office door in person from several airlines, including EasyJet, Thomas Cook, Monarch, British Airways and Emirates and I was able to train all of them and get them through the DVSA driving test over the period of several months.

 

But what about returning to aviation?

As pilots we deal with Risk Management every day. But now I’m faced with a whole pile of decisions regarding my licences, my ratings and recency. Every pilot you meet will give you a varying viewpoint. And the risk is now financial.

I hold a UK ATPL. On that UK ATPL are ratings for B757/767 and Airbus 320. I also hold a United Arab Emirates ICAO licence, which has ratings for Airbus 330, 340 and 380.
All the ratings on all the licences would need renewing, so what’s the best way forward and what does it give you in real terms?
The one part of my licence I’ve always kept current is my UK CAA Class One medical. There’s not a single moment that I ever considered letting that lapse. Being over 50, I suspect that trying to regain a Class One would bring a whole set of complications and challenges that I’d rather not consider, even if I am at a reasonable level of health and fitness.
Almost every job advert will tell you that to be considered, you need to be rated, current and to have flown the applicable airplane in the last 6 months.
It’s now October 2022 – two years on from leaving Dubai and my last LPC on the A380 and like many others, I haven’t been in an airplane since. 
As I mentioned, it’s now a question of financial risk. Should I renew a rating? Which one? What is the benefit? Will it make a difference? And what about in 6 months when I’m no longer deemed ‘Current’? 
I’ve had several conversations with airlines over this – with them all saying that my lack of a current rating ‘might’ be an issue...
With that in mind I recently priced up the cost to revalidate my A320 rating on my UK licence through a few different organisations. On average, I would be expected to part with £6000. That’s not the highest I’ve been quoted. So would my spending £6000 actually make me anymore employable?


The short, evidence based answer so far is ‘No.’ 


All that expenditure actually does, according to the airline people I’ve spoken with, is increase my chances of being ‘looked at’. 
‘You’re a great fit/ your experience is perfect/everything we look for/the ideal Captain etc. for our company. If you had a rating..’ is something I’ve heard more times than I remember this last year. 
So as an unemployed pilot I find myself in a ‘chicken & egg’ situation.


I wonder how many of us would pay £6000 as a non-returnable deposit for a car, with that deposit valid only for six months and no guarantee of actually getting to own the car once you’ve paid? Probably not that many when we look at it like that, but that’s currently how the industry is operating. There will definitely be people who will disagree with me on this and that’s fine. I don’t have the best part of £6k to drop without a pretty good certainty of employment in return, which no one is giving.
As I mentioned – I have a UK ATPL, not an EASA licence.  So that’s also led to much consideration of revalidating a rating and applying for an EASA licence in the process. Once again, I’ve had so many varied and wildly differing costs and instructions about how to apply and what’s required that I have almost given up bothering with this option. In one case, adding an EASA licence application would have doubled my previously quoted rating revalidation price. More than one training organisation has skirted around the question and given the vaguest of answers about their process and cost. 

Personally, this doesn’t inspire much confidence in these organisations or that licencing system.

There’s also what we as individuals will find palatable in our chosen career and our desires to get among the clouds again. Everyone has their price and I’m no exception. As such I do have certain criteria that get placed against every job I see advertised. I’ve finally settled back into the UK after 12 years in the Middle East and have no real desire to return there again, other than on a very short layover. For me, whatever they’re paying, it’s unlikely to be enough considering it will mean leaving the family in the UK for the following reasons - my children are in good local schools and thriving, both in their education and in the personal lives and hobbies that they never had access to whilst we were ex-pats. So would I relocate overseas again? I’d never say never, but at the time of writing this, it’s not being considered in any meaningful way. Would I commute? Possibly, but again, it’d have to be an exceptional job, for a reputable company and have a very good work/ life balance. I would consider the US, but UK pilots aren’t being offered the options of Green Cards like Australian and South African pilots, so that currently remains off the table too.
I chose to settle in Cheshire and my reasons for doing so were quite simple. I have 9 airports within 60 miles of my doorstep so I considered this to have the greater possibilities for work where I am than if I were to live back in the South, where there’s only 7 airports and only 2 of them have any real connectivity or scheduled flying worth considering. 
I’ve watched people return to the Middle East under varying Terms and Conditions, both personally imposed and from employment. It’s hard watching good friends leave their families and young children behind in the UK to take these non-commuting jobs simply so their families have a secure roof over their heads or to rebuild their shattered pensions after raiding them in the immediate aftermath of redundancy.

So is there is a shortage of pilots? The industry seems to think so – particularly at the higher hours and experienced end of the market as many have re-evaluated their lives and chosen different roles inside and outside of aviation courtesy of the Covid Pandemic. This was highlighted last Easter when flights were being cancelled by many airlines with lack of cockpit crew being cited among the many staff shortages. 
This ties in to where I sit without my valid ratings on my licence, because here’s where things get a little fuzzy. As a Widebody Captain, with in excess of 10,000 hours and experience covering every continent of the globe except the Antarctic in both charter and scheduled operations, I’m fortunate that I do get responses to applications. But these ratings become the sticking point.
So I have suggested to more than one airline and recruiter that if I’m such a great fit, an interview, via Zoom etc. is a low risk, low cost option for everyone to assess my suitability further and then we can discuss my rating validity if employment is a possibility.
‘No. We only interview current pilots.’ is the stark response.
 The same airlines are on LinkedIn bemoaning their inability to attract crews to their airline and asking how the pilot shortage can be addressed. 

So do we apply for just about every job we see or be a touch more measured particularly when considering what ratings we hold and our time away from a control column?
Of course we do! It’s been a hallmark of my aviation flying career to throw speculative applications around since before I landed my first airline flying position and I suspect there’s a whole group just like me!
I’m not going to tell you it’s a hugely successful way of going about things, but at least it’s now cheaper and easier than when I was searching for my first flying job and was making trips to the Post Office to buy 100 stamps at a time for that particular week’s batch of letters. 
I would suspect I’m not alone in being concerned about the potential for ‘Skill Fade’ among the job-seeking pilot. There’s the concern that without regular practice we lose some of our edge. An effective instrument scan is a huge part of our toolbox and I’m sure we’ve seen that even a fortnight away from a flight deck can make a bit of an impact. So how about two years? Just like ratings renewals, simulator hire is not a cheap activity, even Fixed Base Sims can come in at well over £200 an hour. Let’s not forget that the soft skills need regular practice to keep up to date too. It’s not really easy to give a T-DODAR brief outside of the flight deck, so for now books and time to reflect on experience are all I have. I am grateful for the depth of my Command Training at Emirates as well as the many Captains and Trainers who have generously imparted their knowledge and insight during my flying career. I’ve found that apart from speed of thinking, I still enjoy troubleshooting and the pressure of leadership.

The recruitment process has changed greatly, at least from the way things happened in the Middle East. The hardest part for me has been interviews via Zoom or Teams etc. Expressing your personality and enthusiasm to someone sitting in their lounge 200 miles away is not easy – I miss the reality of a handshake and being able to read body language (it’s the policeman in me, sorry!) These are all challenges many of us are having to face and deal with for those rare instances where we do get offered the chance to interview.


The next challenge has been the current trend of Competency Based Interviews. This caught me out in a big way! ‘Think of an instance that made you proud at work..’ In my first 3 years I operated just under 600 sectors. There might be a few of those I remember for some particular reason or another, but trying to pinpoint one instance for a certain competency is a tough call. Like most of us, I go to work to do a superb job and have pride in all I do. 
If you’ve yet to face this wonderful experience I’d really advise you to search Competency Based Questions now and have a plan.

The only thing is to keep moving forwards. It’s not always easy. Like many, I’ve asked myself, my wife and my kids a thousand times if it’s really worth the continued effort to return to flying or to make a new start doing something else. The one thing I do know is that the fire for aviation is still burning away in me, as yet unextinguished by the problems of the past and I still look up at the sound of an aircraft. I’m sure there’s many like me who still feel that fire and are still hopeful of better times ahead despite the pandemic, reticence in the industry to actually recruit and the financial turmoil of the last few weeks having a very negative affect on people’s confidence to book a holiday.


For those of you struggling – don’t struggle alone. There’s plenty of us who will happily help with a chat, a look over a CV, listen to a rant or whatever else is needed. 

 

So the last two years have for me, been littered with conversations that have gone nowhere, applications that have been rejected, ignored, acknowledged or in just two cases, been advanced to the next stage. One of those was dealt a blow with the sad announcement about the closure of Doncaster Sheffield Airport. This particular operator is now having to relocate an entire operation to a new and as yet, undetermined location. It’s a reminder that sometimes the operators are having it just as tough as the individuals.

 

I do believe that better times are coming and that should I be asked to write something for Aviation Job Search again it’ll be from the perspective of a pilot who is current and flying – not job hunting.


In recent weeks I’ve seen a little shift in the approach taken by some forward thinking airlines and recruiters with regards to recency and ratings. A couple of conversations have mentioned that my experience is the real employment draw and that lack of a rating isn’t a big deal. More than once I’ve been told that obtaining or revalidating a rating for the job isn’t a problem for the employer. I can only hope that this common sense approach is maintained and these airlines are rewarded with loyal and experienced flight deck crews to boost their operations.

The last time I wrote for AJS I said I believed that the industry would take 2 to 4 years to recover and that’s still looking to be the case despite what appears to be a shortage of crews.
For all those still searching for that job, be it as a newly qualified pilot or as an experienced Captain – I wish you all the very best of luck and success finding that flight deck seat. 

 

If you would like emotional and mental support, wherever you are in your journey, reach out. Aviation Action are a charity that specialise in the support of aviation professionals. 

 

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