Going Direct: Pilots Are At War With Each Over One COVID-19 Question

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These are interesting times, for sure, ones in which uncertainty abounds. What we don’t know greatly outweighs what we do. There is a pandemic. That much we know. But beyond that, there’s great disagreement on just about everything. While scientists largely see eye to eye on the pandemic, not many of those scientists run a small business, and even fewer of them are pilots.  So the question of when this thing is over means something very different to them than it does to most of us.

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President Trump, during his White House news conference about the coronavirus pandemic last night, got to the heart of the matter, making it clear that even at the highest levels of government in the United States, there’s no consensus on where we go from here.

When the President repeated his plea that we, “…can’t let the cure be worse than the problem,” he wrapped up the quandary succinctly. Ruining the economy (and the jobs, lives and welfare that will follow economic collapse) in order to prevent the virus from rampaging through the country is a devil’s deal. No one wants either thing to happen. The problem is, there doesn’t look to be a middle ground. We either stop this thing through very strong control measures or it does great damage. What that damage looks like, no one knows for sure, which makes the calculus impossible to do.

One thing we do know: Aviation is a mess. I know not only because I follow the news, but because my good friends are telling me all about it.

One friend is an airline pilot who’s laid up at home with COVID-19, hoping, as are friends and family alike, that it resolves at home and no hospitalization is necessary. Another commercial pilot friend just got back from a trip where the entire flight was exposed to someone who had the novel coronavirus. Many other commercial pilot friends are on enforced, paid leaves of absence from their jobs and have no solid idea of what all the empty terminals and jets flying routes with a handful of passengers we see on the news will mean to their careers, or if they’ll even have a job when this thing is over.

That last part, “when this thing is over,” is the tricky part, and when I say tricky, I mean, impossible to figure, though there’s no lack of people out there who will tell you they know the answer.

So, what’s the answer? When will this thing be over?

This is what pilots are fighting over, and the roots of the disagreement are regional, philosophical, political and deeply personal. Those out of work because of this pandemic, those living with an elder parent with preexisting health conditions for whom coronavirus is a likely death sentence, those providing much needed health care services and risking their lives in the process… all of those people see the pandemic differently. Then there are those folks living in big cities, where the virus can spread quickly and overwhelm the hospitals almost as fast, and there are others who live in rural counties that have yet to see their first case of COVID-19.

On top of all of these circumstances, there are strong divisions among people based on their political affiliations, which has been a surprise to many. Why would an epidemic be a political subject? Well, it turns out it’s the most political subject imaginable, one so complex and about which people are so passionate it’s driving wedges between friends who had learned to overlook their other differences.

Back to the question: When will this all be over and when will we be back to flying as usual? Like you, I wish it were right now, but it’s not. And it’s all the more complicated because it seems impossible to come to agreement on what it means to be over—when the virus is eradicated? When our health care system has grown to accommodate it (if that does indeed happen) or when the number of deaths has been reduced to a number our society seems as though it can live with.

Regardless, how long it takes before we’re back to work means everything to many in aviation, to pilots (and their families) who rely on business as usual to pay their bills, to people who own aviation businesses or those that support air commerce in some way, and to people who simply love aviation. We all want it over right this second.

But it’s not. Will Sun ‘n Fun happen on its new, postponement date of May 5th? It doesn’t look likely, but some folks think it will happen. What about Oshkosh? Some folks have already written it off, yet others are deeply offended by the very suggestion that the world’s biggest airshow is even at risk of cancellation.

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One thing I think we can all agree upon, however, is this. Whether or not it’s likely, I really, really want to be there at OSH on July 20th to hear that infernal wake-up yodeling song that plays every morning at 7a.m. regardless of when you got to bed. And I hope to see 100,000 or so of my closest friends there, as well.

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