Ben, third back on the left, flying PPE back from Shanghai
Ben, what's your job?
I’ve been a pilot with Virgin Atlantic for 18 months. Before that I was with Ryanair. The opportunity to work for Virgin and experience long haul flying was something I really wanted to do and before the pandemic, I was on the Hong Kong to Los Angeles route. 'Normal life' was pretty amazing, seeing all corners of the world.
I'm still working. Virgin has a stripped-down operation of a few aircraft doing cargo flights. We are flying routes to Hong Kong, Shanghai and the USA, and on my days off I’m in quarantine like everyone else, trying to stay sane in these strange times!
What kind of cargo are you carrying?
The most important is NHS equipment from Shanghai. We've been carrying respiratory equipment and PPE for frontline workers on a daily basis. It's loaded not only into the cargo holds but also the passenger cabin space, so that we transport as much as possible – normally about 30 tonnes worth.
But it's not only medical equipment. Even during lockdown people want their fresh produce and exotic goods, as well as important time-critical items, so there is a high demand for other cargo. It varies from place to place – chocolate from London to China, berries, peaches and peas from South Africa to London, fresh salmon from London to New York ... it can be anything.
How many crew do you have on the cargo flights?
It depends on the length of the flight and the time spent at the destination. London to New York would be two pilots and one cabin crew as it’s a shorter flight. We stay one night and then fly home. The NHS flights to Shanghai are up to 12 hours one way, and due to current travel restrictions we can’t stay. So we land, load the cargo and fly straight back. That requires many more crew – 7 pilots and 4 cabin crew.
Is it a relief not to have to deal with the bleating of sunburnt, hungover passengers?
In my previous life with Ryanair, flying short haul to Malaga and Ibiza on a Friday evening was always an interesting experience. But to be honest, it’s the cabin crew who are frontline to the passengers. They're the ones who have to deal with the ups and downs of passenger life!
Plus – it's the passengers who keep us afloat and allow us to do the job we love. So long live sunburnt, hungover passengers!
How long do you think the PPE flights will go on?
I imagine they are trying to get a stockpile of equipment in the UK, as well as meet the current demand in hospitals. Due to the importance of PPE and the volume hospitals get through, I don’t see these flights ending anytime soon whilst the virus is around. Having said that, like most things right now, there are lots of ifs and buts, so it's hard to predict.
What’s the mood of pilots at the moment? Are they stoic, defeatist or just partying even harder than usual?
Obviously it depends on who you speak to and their individual situation, but I’d say the mood is realistic, whilst positive.
Realistic, because we are all aware of the huge impact that Covid is having on our industry – one that is very susceptible to a crisis. Inevitably, things will change and sacrifices will be made for us to survive and succeed.
But also positive because we are still operating flights, making a difference, and even though it may be a long road ahead, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Are you tired of being asked about the future of the airline industry?
No, not at all! I have a great job in an incredible industry – one often taken for granted – and I’m proud to be a part of it.
The aviation industry in the UK employs over 350,000 people directly, and many more indirectly. The importance of air travel to the world as we know it can’t be underestimated, so talking about it is something close to my heart. This pandemic doesn’t discriminate and is affecting all of us, so we just have to be positive, patient and work together.
Loving it since his first lesson at Oxford Aviation Academy!
Thank you Ben!