Is it ethically or morally justifiable to continue providing flight instruction? It’s a question I never thought I’d have to address, but as with so many other coronavirus firsts, here we are.
As we’ve written before, more than three out of four Americans are living under some kind of stay-at-home order. This has created millions, and I’m not exaggerating, of conflicts among workers, their families, their businesses and their communities over what constitutes an “essential” business. In some cases, including the county in which I live, the government entity doing the defining has determined that a number of businesses are essential even though it’s hard to see what’s essential about them.
In other cases, the owners of the business simply claim that they’re essential, a game of chicken with the legalities. A well known chain of craft stores, for instance, has most of its stores open despite it being hard to understand how glitter and knick knacks are essential enough to warrant the risk to the store’s employees. Oh yeah, and to their families and coworkers, as well.
One flight school in North Carolina was in the news recently when its owner, according to a story from a local media site, threatened to fire anyone he discovered had complained about the flight school being open, even going so far, according to reports, as offering a $500 bounty on information about such complaints.
In a tweet a pilot observed that all flight schools who choose to stay open during mandatory essential shutdowns are exhibiting classic “anti-authority and ‘invulnerability’ behaviors.”
In most places the atmosphere is less Lord Of The Flies, though the stakes are equally high. Could someone get the coronavirus from taking or giving flight instruction? Of course they could. And they could spread it, too, including to family members who be at grave risk should they come down with COVID-19.
For one thing, the cockpit of an airplane that gets shared among others is hazardous enough regardless of how well it gets cleaned in between flights. And the actual instruction is a potential health hazard not far removed from that which some health care workers face. Student and instructor are just too close to each other.
Besides, is flight instruction really an essential business right now? It’s hard to say that it is in most cases and simply impossible in others. Were I to want to get a blimp rating—which I would kind of like to do someday—would my quest to get that new certificate be in any imaginable way an essential activity? Of course not. And the same is true for anyone who wants to simply get their pilot’s license right now, though it pains me to my core to say that. The potential harm to the participants and to other parties they later come into contact with is just too great to stretch the definition of “essential” to cover that kind of flying.
But what about training commercial pilots? One could indeed make a solid case that this qualifies as an essential business activity. But then again, we’re looking at an unprecedented number of active, current and ready-to-go commercial pilots who are on the street right now—Spirit Airlines just cut its schedule by 90%—and who are ready to fly. It isn’t essential that we mint new pilots.
I don’t think it’s a tough call. Morally and ethically the thing to do is shut down nearly all flight instruction, and do it now. And the instructors who say, “No, I won’t continue flying and risking my life and the lives of the students I fly with and all of our families back at home,” are showing not only a lot of character but they’re demonstrating sound aeronautical decision making, something that’s supposed to be part of the mission statement of any flight instruction operation.