By JOEY MERCADO
2020 was a complicated year to say the least. Those working in aviation were affected by hiring freezes and furloughs by airlines due to the economic impact of the pandemic and the restrictions brought upon by COVID-19, leaving many pilots left with only frustration.
This shared frustration is also felt by seasoned aviation professionals, some of which have been involved in aviation for decades — if not more. Although they might be used to the ebbs and flows the industry goes through every 10 or so years, this time, the scale is much larger. For these veterans, the question is much more of a “when” rather than “if” we will get back to work. Which is much different than how some of us “rookies” may see the industry at this time.
In February of 2020, I finally finished my training and received my Commercial Pilot Certificate. It was a great feeling. A weight off of my shoulders. The aviation industry was booming, regional airlines had cadet programs and were ready to hire you the moment you hit that magic number of 1,500 hours. The possibilities were endless, or so I thought. My strategy was to get picked up on an EAS /(Essential Air Service) carrier, or an air cargo company that hired lower time pilots with experience anywhere from 250 to 500 hours.
At the same time, reports started to circulate about this new virus spreading like wildfire. I did not think much of it due to living through Bird Flu, H1N1, and SARS. A new virus of some concern appearing every few years seemed to have become the norm and none of which ever lead to any degree of social restrictions. In my mind, COVID-19 would pass just like all these other viruses, and I could go on living my everyday life as usual. Little did I know the monster it would become, affecting communities, private and commercial businesses unlike anything seen before.
It did not occur to me the severity of this virus until mid-March while visiting my girlfriend, who at the time was attending medical college in Grenada as she continued her journey of becoming a physician. Midway through my visit she received an email from her school stating all classes would be optional for the remaining week, and that, school had arranged an evacuation of the island. The college hired two charter companies to fly students off of the island to one of three major hubs, those being Miami (MIA), New York (JFK), or Toronto (YYZ) at no charge. From there, students would have to arrange their own means of transportation home at their own expense.
The following day after receiving the email, my girlfriend decided to attend what would be her last ever lecture on campus. I sat in on her class only to find about a third of the lecture hall was full, which is regularly filled with upwards of 300 students. After the lecture, we rode the bus back to her apartment. As we did, we passed a vehicle with four megaphones on its roof blasting its message. There were announcements cautioning people to wash their hands regularly and to stay home if they felt sick. All of this seemed rather bizarre, eerie even, with my brain only being able to process it as something I’ve seen in sci-fi or some sort of zombie apocalypse movie.
The eerie feeling continued two days later when heading to the airport to start my trip home to California. Maurice Bishop International Airport in Grenada usually only handles three or four airliners a day. It was now trying to handle an additional four to six aircraft (737s and 767s). The University was using these planes specifically to charter students off the island. The airport was so packed, there were students lined up down the street leading to the drop off area. After battling the dense crowds and help from the staff, I managed to catch my flight to the States, finally making it to California soil.
My plan as soon as I got home was to start my career search in hopes of landing my first position as a commercial pilot. Although, shortly after I arrived home to California, orders to shelter in place were implemented throughout the state. I was led to believe this was only going to be the case for a short period before we could move on with our lives having put this virus behind us. I started submitting my resume for any position I found I qualified for. Little did I know what was in store for the world and the aviation industry as a whole.
Within weeks, news began to break that airlines around the country were canceling flights, reducing traffic, implementing health guidelines, and possibly furloughing staff. I hoped this would not affect my job, considering many positions I was applying for operated under Part 91, and didn’t rely on passenger demand. Eventually I would see the trickle down reductions in the airlines and the general job market. I knew how hard it was going to be to now obtain a position.
Brian, a good friend of mine who was my Commercial Multi-engine instructor, moved to the Eastern United States in April to begin his training with a regional carrier. He soon received an email informing him his class date would be on hold until further notice. Originally he was lead to believe that he would only be delayed about three months. Over time he came to the realization this would drag out a lot longer than any of us would have expected. Recently he has found himself back on the job market mostly applying for CFI and 135 jobs.
After two months of searching for my first pilot position, I got lucky. A former flight instructor of mine found an ad for an aerial survey position on the website, Craigslist. He thought I might be interested in the position and forwarded the information over to me. I took advantage of this lead and soon I found myself with a new job flying a Cessna 150. Although at first it was a challenge to overcome motion sickness; a result of constant 50 to 60 degree steep turns, I prevailed. I knew in the long run this position would be great experience under my belt as an aspiring professional pilot. Most weeks, I flew five days a week, and in a short period of time I was able to log around 150 hours. Unfortunately it was only a seasonal position lasting until the end of September 2020, and soon, I was back on the job market.
About the time the aerial survey season ended, a friend who manages multiple Cirrus SR22s, offered me the occasional work flying under him. It was a great opportunity gaining experience flying a Cirrus, with good pay, too. At first I was flying with him regularly, gaining experience and knowledge of the aircraft. A short amount of time later, demand slowed down and my help was no longer needed.
It’s been over two months since I received any type of income flying. Luckily, there is some money in my savings account which has allowed me to stay afloat. Every morning I open my computer and search for new job postings for pilots with 500 hours or less. I have made it a point to not limit myself regionally and submit resumes to countless pilot positions around the country. In addition, I have taken extra time to write in depth responses to questions on applications. Despite my efforts, I regularly receive emails informing me more experienced pilots have applied for the same position, and as a result will not be considered instead.
It seems I may be competing for the same positions as some furloughed airline pilots. My assumption is furloughed ATP pilots are applying for 1,000 hour jobs and even the 500 hour ones, bumping 500 hour pilots like myself out of the picture in this extremely limited job market. I remember hearing colleagues and friends of colleagues with the same experience level as myself easily finding work prior to COVID-19. I feel like my career has found itself in limbo. A place where I am no longer in flight school, regularly flying to prepare for my future, and a place lacking experience for job postings I meet all requirements for. I do not blame companies for overlooking me when more qualified pilots have applied. If I were hiring pilots, and received an overwhelming amount of applicants, I would eliminate candidates with the least amount of hours as well.
For fresh CFI’s the market does not seem too much better, either. A former classmate who I finished my commercial license with continued his training and became a CFI. He has had more trouble finding work than I have, applying on average to 25 to 30 jobs a week. Only recently was he hired for a temporary position at a flight school, a school which also ceased all operations as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.
Pilots with experience similar to myself can only stay hopeful and look to a time COVID-19 restrictions are a thing of the past, and life will return to normal. Aviation demand will increase, and the dream of regularly flying and traveling the world is not dead. For students in flight school the same mentality applies.
Do not quit because you think the job market looks hopeless. According to Boeing, the future is bright with huge demand for pilots. Boeing has estimated the need for 129,000 new pilots in North America through 2039. These projections were created after citing that 20 percent of pilots are reaching mandatory retirement age, with an average passenger air travel increase of 6.5 percent a year over the last decade.
They are also expecting air travel demand to return to 2019 historical numbers by 2023. This is great news, especially to those currently in flight school. These students’ timing is on track to finishing their ratings, build time and go right into the airlines (if they chose). For pilots like myself, this is just a delay obtaining that dream job and as we all know, delays are common in aviation.
At times, the advancement of my career feels like it’s stuck on pause and sometimes, frustrating. This often leads me to question myself, “Did I make the right decision in pursuing my dream career in aviation?” The simplest answer: Yes! Myself, along with many others, pursuing a career in aviation just need to remember to be patient. Like anything else in life, remember everything will get better in time and things change. And although for the moment the job search is frustrating, I’m still fortunate enough to look to the future as I have an aerial survey pilot position come April 2021. I will once again be working to gain more hours and work towards my dream.
That dream also includes being able to one day start my address to the cabin by announcing, “This is your Captain, speaking.”
In addition to being an up-and-coming pilot on the national aviation scene, Joey Mercado is a Merced native, a member of Merced High’s Class of 2004, and a former manager of the renown Bar B-Q Pit restaurant in downtown Merced.