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'My life savings have been wiped out': Pilots concerned that Covid restrictions could see licences elapse

Many pilots have been laid off due to a lack of international travel during the pandemic.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Peter Krocka

COMMERCIAL AIRLINE PILOTS have expressed concern that their inability to fly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic means their licences may become invalid, requiring them to retrain at a cost of thousands of Euro.

Speaking to The Journal, two former Stobart Air workers highlighted how the pandemic has left them in financial straits after the collapse of the regional flyer earlier this month.

The airline was just one of those that has been badly hit as a result of the pandemic’s effect on international travel, and terminated its contract with Aer Lingus earlier this month, leaving 480 staff out of work.

Earlier this week, representatives of Aer Lingus told an Oireachtas Committee that the company was losing €1 million a day because of Covid-19 restrictions.

One former Stobart pilot, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that he hasn’t flown since 28 March, 2020.

He explained that he was receiving the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) and that, despite taking a break from repaying loans, is now doing so again using his savings.

“My savings were wiped out over the last 15 months,” he said. “And my partner, she’s also in aviation. So the two of us have kind of taken a double hit with this.”

The pilot described how the couple have received financial aid “to the tune of several thousand” from family members.

He also said his main concern is a return to flying, with pilots having a requirement to fly every 90 days in order to remain current.

In order to keep their licences valid, pilots must complete three take-offs and landings within 90 days. If they fail to do this, their licence becomes temporarily invalid until they complete training in a flight simulation and retrain in the airplane under a training captain.

The pilot expressed further concern that pilots may have to spend money to be retrained, which he estimates could cost several thousand euros, while a medical examination is also required 12 months.

“I don’t know will allowances be made because of the pandemic, and people are aware that maybe pilots haven’t flown as much as they normally would?” he said.

“When it does come time to apply for jobs, I’ll have to figure out a way to get myself current again.”

This pilot has recently gotten a job in administration with an airline, but still is not flying for the foreseeable future.

Another ex-Stobart pilot, who also wished to remain anonymous, completed the three take-offs and landings within 90 days since June 2020 in order to prevent his licence from elapsing.

His licence was renewed in January this year, so when the airline terminated its contract with Aer Lingus, he said it “came as a complete shock”.

“We were all expecting to go back to work,” the pilot said.

“Being a pilot, it’s a well-paid job and a well-paid job comes expensive with bills as well.”

He explained that his partner was in the process of building a house before the pandemic hit, but that the bank declined their mortgage once he became unemployed.

The couple and their two children were living with the pilot’s parents while their house was being built, and as a result, are now still doing so.

More supports vs easing restrictions

The Government has recently been called on by members of the Opposition to do more to help pilots in need.

Sinn Féin TD Claire Kerrane recently asked for the Short-Term Work Support supplementary payment, which assists those whose hours have been temporarily reduced to three days or less a week, to be extended. 

Many pilots are in receipt of this payment but are set to become ineligible for it because an employee can only receive it for a maximum of 234 days.

Alan Brereton, Vice President of the Irish Air Line Pilots Association (IALPA), said that pilots working for Aer Lingus had seen a 70% reduction in earnings across the year. 

Many of these are in receipt of the STWS. Brereton estimates that the issue affects hundreds of pilots.

“I have a lot of friends and colleagues in Stobart who are waking up with Jobseeker’s Allowance and no prospect on the horizon of a job in aviation,” said Brereton.

He also said one member of IALPA has been forced to sell his house due to financial strain.

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A spokesperson for the Department of Transport said that the government is conscious of the need to support the Irish aviation industry as a result of the pandemic.

The department said it has given €300 million to the industry so far this year and expects this to rise to half a billion Euro by the end of next year.

A statement added that the return of aviation will be linked to the rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations across the world, the evolution of the virus and variants, the ongoing need for testing related to travel, and a “more general economic outlook”. 

Earlier this week, union representatives convened to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on international travel.

At the committee, IALPA president Evan Cullen claimed that one major airline had “effectively” laid off half of its staff and reduced the pay of the other half, and that another regional flyer had made all of its Dublin staff redundant.

“This is absolutely an emergency,” he said. “We believe things are almost at the point of no return and in the new year, when this economy needs an airline industry to restart its connectivity and its economy, there will not be one to bring back.”

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