When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March, the travel industry ground to a halt.
Airports filled up with panicked travelers and expats trying to return to their home countries.
Some were ordered to shelter in place. Others were exposed to COVID-19 on their travels. Many had to cancel trips. Flight crews had to risk their health and wellness to work.
These individual experiences weave together to make up the story of travel during COVID-19 -- a collective history that deserves to be documented. We wanted to share the stories that members of our community shared with us.
This is the story of Celeste Pearce, a pilot of over 30-years whose aircraft was retired due to COVID-19.
Having flown through the aftermath of 9-11, and now an unprecedented global pandemic, her story, and perspective deserves to be told.
Pilot, Interrupted: A 32-Year Career Ground to a Halt by a Global Pandemic
Celeste has been an airline pilot for one of the biggest airlines in the US since 1988.
Flying on average 15 flights per month between the USA and Europe in the summer, and the Caribbean in the winter, Celeste's career was put on pause when she was forced to go on disability leave. Excited to return to work after recovery, she was just settling in after her comeback when COVID-19 hit.
February was an idyllic month for Celeste. She was based out of beautiful Phoenix, Arizona, able to avoid the cold East Coast winter weather right when it begins to wear on you the most. Flying between PHX and Lihue, Kauai, the temporary assignment Celeste was on made a smoother transition out of winter.
As March rolled around, she was scheduled for 16 days of work, flying between PHL and the Caribbean.
But Then, Everything Changed
Celeste, who had piloted flights for her airline since 1988, ended up working only 11 due to COVID-19 cancelations.
Her airline was hit hard financially by pandemic, losing millions a day and facing layoffs. The airline was forced to make a quick money-saving decision to retire Celeste’s aircraft, the 767, 1-2 years earlier than originally planned.
Working in the Aviation Industry During the Beginning of the Outbreak
We wanted to know what it was like to work in one of the most highly impacted industries in America during the beginning of the outbreak. Celeste says that it started off relatively calm.
“Earlier in March, coronavirus was just talked about. It didn’t seem like it would really affect us.
But that quickly turned, and by my next flight a few days later, I noticed people becoming nervous and fearful.
By mid-March, the airports were becoming sparsely populated, and some airline workers were scared and wanted the airlines to stop flying.”
We were interested to hear what the underlying feeling was at airports during the month of March.
“I flew out of JFK when the airport opened after 9-11, the scene was similar in some ways. As airport workers after 9-11, we all would look at each other very compassionately, our eye contact stating ‘we will never forget, we’re in this together.’”
While Celeste reports that flight crews were certainly behaving similarly, passenger attitudes were a different story.
“Passengers after 9-11 were humble, extremely grateful and kind. During COVID-19, though, passengers were fearful, very hesitant to return a hello or smile and many avoided eye contact. It was a very cold, sterile feeling.”
How Airlines Implemented Increased Safety Measures
If you were to fly now, nearly 3 months after the pandemic was declared, your experience would be different from a flight you were to take in March.
Airlines are beginning to expand their routes, the World Health Organization has published health guidelines and safety standards that have been widely-adopted by airlines, and passengers have adapted to a new norm.
But in March, the industry was grappling with how to respond to an unprecedented and extremely sudden global emergency. We asked Celeste what it was like in the airports and inflight at that time.
“In March, some workers and passengers wore masks, and seating was spaced out manually by some ticket agents. Since hardly anyone was flying, this wasn’t an issue.
Some shifts were happening with inflight service, like serving food with wrappers still on.”
In terms of protecting flight crews, some measures were put in place as well.
The Outlook of Post-Pandemic Air Travel
While many airlines are seeing modest improvements to their bookings since March, especially for domestic routes[*], the aviation industry has a long way to go to full recovery.
The Risk of Exposure to COVID-19
“On April 3rd, I received a letter that I had worked with someone on March 24th who had since contracted COVID.”
Celeste was fortunate enough to avoid contracting the virus, having since been tested negative for COVID-19 antibodies.
Nobody knows what the long-term impact of this pandemic will have on the aviation and travel industries.
Flying may forever look a little different. Perhaps international pleasure travel will cool in favor of more domestic exploration. Hopefully, the focus on health and wellness when we travel will remain a priority.
“I’m praying my industry can make it back in the 2 years they forecast but so much damage has been done, and unlike 9-11, this is global. I look forward, hopefully before I retire, to have the demand, loads, and frequency the airlines provided in 2019!”