May 15, 2020

Airline pilot, employees face uncertain future

Southwest Airlines Captain Michael Bonner has been considered an essential worker during the pandemic, but what does that mean for the life of the pilot and others he works with?

Bonner, my father, lives in Cincinnati and routinely flies in and out of Chicago. He has been a pilot for more than 20 years and has now experienced both 9/11 and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Among other essential workers, Bonner feels the effect of travel restrictions, as airports have become ghost towns and numbers of flights are down and those planes flying carry far fewer passengers.

Capt. Michael Bonner of Southwest Airlines, wearing a mask on his commuter flight to Chicago, where he will take over as pilot on an aircraft. Photo provided by Michael Bonner

“Before 9/11 flying was free and easy," Bonner said. "It was laid back and more customer friendly. People were able to come up to the flight deck and look around while flying."

After 9/11, many things changed, including security. TSA became an important part of the way we fly. For my generation, flying without TSA is unheard of, but to fly and keep each plane safe, the world had to take precautions.

“In the air (since 9/11), you are not allowed to congregate near the cockpit and if you start to show signs of aggression, we will divert and you will be arrested. It’s much more formal rule-wise.," Bonner said.   Rules have changed and although he doesn’t know exactly how airport and travel life will change after the pandemic, he can sense a new set of rules rolling around.

The changes in flying prompted by the virus are as dramatic.

Spring break has always been among the busiest times of the year for the airline, said Brenda Sackett, a customer service agent at the Fort Lauderdale Airport. “Approximately 10,000 people come through FLL per day, but this year there were about 400 per day. We went from 110 flights a day, all the way down to 35,” she said.

Airports are like ghost towns during the COVID-19 pandemic, as shown in this view of a normally busy concourse at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky  International Airport. Photo provided by Michael Bonner

The change has surely hurt the airline industry and gives a different view of the situation. “I think we have a very different perspective of COVID from people that stay home,” said Kathryn Flynn, a first officer on a flight from Chicago’s Midway Airport. “Even seeing the planes lined up on runways with nowhere to go is a stressful and constant reminder of how bad things are.”

Planes still have to be fueled and maintained, even though there are less customers than ever before.  The airline industry is being hit hard in the pandemic. Southwest Airlines, which claims to be the only airline never to have laid off workers, is working hard to make sure each and every employee keeps their jobs.

Lucy Bonner just finished her sophomore year at Miami, where she is majoring in strategic communication and Spanish.