The COVID-19 pandemic has been a great reminder of how interconnected the world economies are. For airline employees, this has been like reliving the post-9/11, SARS, and the Great Recession all at once.
In 24 years of airline flying, I have never seen anything remotely like this. On my last couple of trips, I flew so few people that if I consolidated all of the passengers on one trip, I’d be lucky to fill one airplane. I certainly wouldn’t need more than two.
Aviation has always been a topsy-turvy industry—one that, until a few years ago, had lost more money than it had ever made. Profits really only became a sure thing after 2012, as the economy rebounded and airlines began to a la carte the pricing model after realizing that they had been giving away the store for decades. In the last few years, employees were able to reap the benefits of this with record amounts of profit-sharing, and for pilots, record levels of compensation after so many years of subpar pay (especially at the regionals).
What we have seen since the end of February has been a gut punch, to say the least. It should also bring home a point that is easy to forget when times are good: Never, ever live at or beyond your means. No matter what you make, especially as a pilot, you should always live some degree below that, and put the difference into the bank or into a debt reduction plan.
There is no telling yet what this will do to jobs across the industry. The stimulus bill will provide a bit of a bridge to get employees through the summer, but two airlines have already shut down (Trans States and Compass, both owned by the same holding company), and as I write this at least one other (Miami Air) has filed for bankruptcy, with speculation about others doing the same. The majors are doing everything they can to avoid any furloughs, but they are all offering early separation packages, which almost always means that furloughs are imminent.
The advice offered here is true for anyone, but some industries are more vulnerable than others, and airlines are among the worst. It’s often said that when the economy gets a cold, the airlines get the flu. That said, here are some suggestions for those new to the industry to consider moving forward:
Create your own safety net. Save as much cash as you can, and not just for a C-19 event. You may need to take a pay cut to further your career or to move. You may get sick or injured. Money in the bank is the first line of defense against any kind of economic uncertainty.
Avoid the captain house. Buy smaller than you might want when the time comes so that the mortgage is always affordable. Pay it off early. Not only will the lack of a mortgage give you great peace of mind, it will also free up some cash flow that you can save, invest, or put toward other debt. When my previous carrier went out of business, I was nearly sick at the thought of losing my house during the recession, when prices were bottoming out and neighbors were filing for bankruptcy or just walking away. I was able to keep my home, and now it is paid for, and the difference in my mindset as a result is night and day.
Eliminate debt. Better yet, avoid it altogether if you can, but if you have student loans or credit card debt, make it a priority to pay them down and pay them off. Don’t borrow for vacations. Pay your car off early and drive it for several years while you pay yourself what you were paying for a car loan so that you can pay cash (or nearly so) for the next car.
Invest in yourself. This is a two-pronged approach. Create a fallback plan to make a living if your lose your job or the industry craters around you. If possible, stay in that line of work part time. A friend of mine is a computer programmer, and his flying income supplements his code-writing, not the other way around. Another pilot became a physician’s assistant during the last downturn and practices on the side. Others have gone to law school. A recent captain I flew with owns several franchises. All of them can live off that other income.
Secondarily, put more money into your 401(k) and IRAs than you think you can afford. Mandatory retirement will be here sooner than you can imagine, and since we are living longer, you need to save for a retirement that might be longer than your working career, especially if you have a medical issue that grounds you.
Finally, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Be realistic about various scenarios, and be careful with your major life decisions and the money you plan to spend. Make sure that your spouse and family are on board with financial conservatism. In the long run, they will thank you for it, and you will sleep better at night.—Chip Wright