In ‘Times like Covid’, RTL Today interviews people from different professions and backgrounds on how the ongoing pandemic has shaped their lives.

Last week we spoke to cafe owner Felipe Carrillo on the government's measures, the reopening of terraces, and the country's exacerbating rent crisis due to the pandemic.

You may have seen the impressive yet depressing pictures of planes parked across the tarmac at airports around the world, tightly arranged like tetris blocks, waiting patiently to be taken to the skies again. Grounded by an invisible virus who’s spread was inevitably facilitated by the mode of transport itself, global air travel came to a near standstill in 2020, and has only recovered minimally in 2021. 
At Findel Airport alone, passenger numbers in 2020 decreased by 68% compared to 2019 (setting them back to levels recorded in 2003), whereas freight volume increased by 6%. Globally passenger numbers slumped by 75%. Bookings for future travel were down by 70% compared to one year prior, and IATA, the International Air Transport Association, expects the industry to only gain a 50.4% improvement in 2021 with regards to pre-pandemic levels. The vaccination rollout and increased testing could be the light at the end of the tunnel.

RTL Today spoke to Dirk Becker, 51, Executive Secretary of Luxembourg's Airline Pilot Association (ALPL) and a Captain with Cargolux. His emotions are mixed: on the one hand, as a pilot for one of the world’s largest cargo airlines, he and his colleagues have been working relentlessly throughout the pandemic to meet high demand for air freight. On the other hand, many professional pilots in the passenger airline industry have lived through the last year with minimal hours in the air.

Besides his career in the cockpit, Becker represents the interests of all pilots in Luxembourg for the association, and explained how his day-to-day job is impacted by Covid-19. He spoke to Lisa Burke in May, but one year later it is time for a catch-up.

Fast changing quarantine rules and restrictions

One of the main challenges of multi-country trips is having to adapt to widely varying health measures each day. While passenger planes fly back and forth between two destinations, cargo planes make multi-leg trips (for example, a trip could be Luxembourg - Dubai - Jakarta - Bangkok - Hong Kong - Anchorage - Chicago - Luxembourg). This means crews are on the road, or in the skies, for a long period of time, often facing different restrictions at each individual destination: “It makes operations very difficult. Measures in the country that we’re flying to can be changed mid-air”, says Becker, adding that the extra workload is not only shouldered by crews themselves, but also by back office staff at their home base planning and arranging the trips.

“It happened to me in Dubai. A curfew was announced while we were in the air. The crews of all airlines laying over in Dubai were concentrated in one hotel. Sometimes companies stopped certain layovers because of restrictions”, Becker recalls. One hotel had security officers guarding the hallways to make sure no one left their rooms. “It’s really strange and puts stress on the crew.” Locked up for several days with no access to fresh air. Mandatory quarantine could come up at any moment, which is a real destabilising factor on everyday operations. Privately, it can affect family life and routine.

The start of the pandemic left quite an impact on Becker: “The most remarkable flight occurred to me last year. We were the only aircraft on frequency between Luxembourg and Dubai. It felt like we were alone in the sky. In 25 years in the business I’ve never experienced this. There was no other traffic than us.”

But the troubles begin before the plane even takes off. Many of Becker’s colleagues do not live in Luxembourg, but in neighbouring countries or even further such as Switzerland and Austria, who have to fly in on commercial flights or commute by car or train before starting their trips. “They have a difficult time getting back to Luxembourg”, says Becker, “and so we had pilots that volunteered to stay around in Luxembourg to keep flying.”

In this particular area, the ALPL’s mission is to keep its members informed about the developing situation globally, voice concern about the physical and psychological strains that the pandemic is having on air crews, as well as push for policies that can facilitate their profession. The association counts over 600 members.

Lack of vaccines, pilots as essential workers

Currently pilots are not categorised as essential workers, despite working relentlessly to ensure daily flow and arrival of goods. Ironically, this frequently includes materials directly related to the pandemic, including vaccines, field hospitals or medical equipment, but the pilots themselves will have to wait to receive a jab. Becker is well aware that cargo pilots are not in the spotlight as much as passenger airline pilots (“it’s not as sexy”), but their jobs nonetheless remain indispensable.

Another issue is the Green Passport, a proof that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19. For the pilots, who often live around Europe but come to Luxembourg to work, free movement remains essential, Becker underlines: “There must be practicable exemptions for commuting crew members.” The association has therefore sent a letter to the Minister of Transport, Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Tourism, hoping for clarification.

With vaccines, the problem is that Cargolux is recognised by the government as an essential company, but at the same time no vaccines are available for cross-border workers, with several exceptions such as health care staff. This would mean that the vast majority of pilots, who are not residing in Luxembourg, would not get the vaccine in the Grand Duchy.

Luckily, in terms of testing, Cargolux is one of the front runners. A combination of effective measures, frequent testing opportunities (crews are offered a voluntary test before departure and upon arrival) and a great level of discipline meant that the number of Cargolux pilots testing positive for Covid-19 remained relatively low. “As representatives, we can only positively comment how Cargolux managed this pandemic. We have regular discussions with Cargolux senior management since the beginning of the pandemic. We did not always agree with management on how things would be done best in the interest of the company and its employees, but were always able to find a good compromise.  The past 12 months just show what is possible when management and staff representatives collaborate”, says Becker. The pandemic has surely been a driving force for better communication and collaboration.

Do you have a story to share with us about how Covid-19 has impacted your life? Feel free to reach out via email to joshua.oudendijk@rtltoday.lu.