Corporate Flying During the Pandemic

The ATC frequencies are still pretty quiet. It’s easy to get direct routings and weather deviations most of the time. And FBO ramps are not often crowded.

But corporate and charter flying are back. In fact, many charter, membership and fractional ownership aircraft operators are reporting record interest, mostly from first time private flyers.

The coronavirus is making private flying look ever more appealing as the airlines cut flights and many pack people into nearly every middle seat. Not to mention the airline terminal experience.

In fact, my company, a tier one automotive component supplier with facilities across the US, in Europe and Asia, still has a ban on airline travel. But we’ve been flying people who need to go domestically for the past two months.

The auto industry was among the first large scale manufacturing operations to resume after widespread lockdowns across most of the country. The automotive OEMs negotiated procedures to contain the virus threat with the big unions and state and federal governments. And those operating procedures, naturally enough, flowed down to us in the flight department.

The key elements of virus containment procedures are temperature checks of everyone entering a company facility; a brief interview of each person concerning their health, and the health of anyone they have been in contact with; wearing face covering at all times when six feet of separation can’t be maintained; and frequent cleaning of all contact surfaces.

King Air cabin
This looks pretty good right now, especially when the seats aren’t filled.

As an additional precaution we have limited the passenger load to half of the seating capacity. That still doesn’t keep people six feet apart at all times, but it does give them the option not to be seated directly beside, or across from, another passenger.

So, when we greet our passengers in the FBO lounge we carry one of those hand-held temperature scanners. For some reason everybody tests a little cool, mostly 97 point something degrees F.

We wear masks when we are around the passengers on the ground, and while boarding. Mask wearing by FBO staff varies, but it’s becoming more common. The large national FBO chains have instituted firm mask requirements for their people so they wear masks all the time.

Once we’re in the cockpit we take off our masks and don the headsets as normal. We don’t police what the passengers do, where they sit, and if they wear masks or not. They all know each other, work together at some level, and all can make up their own minds.

In chatting with other crews in pilot lounges I’ve learned our procedures are nearly universal among corporate crews. Some charter pilots have told me they are expected to wear masks at all times in flight. But then there is the cockpit door or curtain that can be deployed, and often is.

Several crews told me their companies are now reserving more rental cars so, like the airplane, less than half the seating capacity is being used. One crew said—and I hope this doesn’t become the norm—they are required to wipe down the rental car interiors with disinfectant before their passengers drive off.

Even though corporate flight departments and charter operators all seem to employ similar virus containment procedures, how closely they are followed depends on where the passengers and crew are based. Those from the Northeast, where the virus was most devastating, are usually the most diligent about mask wearing and surface cleaning. Those from the South and West, where the virus had not been so prevalent early on, don’t seem to pay as much attention.

But that may be changing now that the Southeast and West are experiencing the highest levels of virus transmission.

I can’t say that fear of the virus has changed most pilots’ attitudes about flying. We sit a foot or two at most away from the other pilot in the cockpit, often for hours at a time. We spend our waiting time in the same pilot lounges, eat meals together, and RON at the same hotels. Social distancing just doesn’t work in a cockpit, on the ramp, or in many parts of a flight operation.

The reason I think we pilots—at least those of us who are still flying—don’t seem to fear our fellow crewmember is that we have always trusted the person in the other seat with our physical safety. Not to mention our livelihood. If I’m worried my crewmate won’t quarantine themselves if they are a threat how can I trust them to fly the airplane, or to monitor my performance when it’s my leg to fly?

The temperature checks, masks, and constant wiping down of the airplane cabin are a minor hassle, but nothing we can’t endure. Corporate and charter flying were virtually shut down for several weeks, but now, on some days, the number of domestic private flights is approaching pre-pandemic levels. International flying is still a tiny fraction of what it once was, and given the global variability of virus outbreaks and government regulations, it will take a long time for the transoceanic trips to come back.

But for now, the private airplane is again proving its worth in a way none of us ever expected. And I’m glad to be back flying again.

18 Comments

  • Mac, interesting report here. Thanks. I, too, resumed flying smaller airplanes shortly after retirement (April 1, 2020), and it does seem that we’ve gotten busier in the past 60 days than the guys were shortly before I arrived. Although, we don’t do outside charters; we fly for specific families, members, owners. They all have decided to forego airline flying if at all possible; so, we’re flying all over the country and down into Mexico – as well as Canada. None of us wear masks at any time while we’re separated from other (out-of-the-group) people. I guess we’re just tired of the foolishness… But we put on the “show” while we’re walking through the FBOs so others don’t freak out. Anyway, the boon in private flying has come at a great time for this retired airline pilot.

    • “None of us wear masks at any time while we’re separated from other (out-of-the-group) people. I guess we’re just tired of the foolishness…”
      What? That kind of “thinking” is coming from a… pilot? A mentality dismissive of the overwhelming evidence that science has amassed regarding COVID and viral spread is unbecoming even among uneducated knuckle draggers. If you don’t believe in science then what are you doing flying an airplane? Didn’t science design the airplanes you fly? Isn’t science behind the performance calculations? What about the science behind weather forecasting? What about aeromedical factors? Are you laughing off science which is behind those critical safety facts of flying, right along with science which is behind the critical safety facts of the pandemic? The attitude you expressed is unprofessional to a disqualifying degree since good judgment is a necessary part of the job.

      “But we put on the “show” while we’re walking through the FBOs so others don’t freak out.” What’s that — the show of putting on the mask along with the captain’s hat and epaulettes lest the passengers freak out realizing that their pilot doesn’t actually believe in science, common sense, or safety?

      And here’s a thought for you and any others who may think it seems macho to laugh at something intelligent or doing the right thing: Statistically, the risks of flying are nothing compared to the risks posed by COVID-19. Between myself and my fellow professional pilots in just one facility we’ve had zero accidents/incidents in dozens of years (each) of flying — yet all (except me) have been terribly sickened, have residual damage afterward, have infected their family members (some of whom nearly died), and know of friends killed by this virus through community spread. Pilots should be trustworthy and should be leaders – they should not be disobeying common sense and mask orders (and bragging that they’re pilots). And anyone, anywhere, who is prolonging death, disability, and economic destruction by aiding the spread should be called out.

  • A well thought out and written description of the corporate world. I guess we are all going to be victims of corporate feel good ism like wiping down “all” surfaces in a rental car. A place mostly always flooded with virus killing UV light. But hey if we all have to feel safe and follow rules made ip by Human Resources thats what we’ll all have to do.

    • Hi Bruce,
      If there is an upside it’s that our passengers work under the same procedures every day around the office and factories and understand that we all need to keep up appearances—until we close the door. We all get it. It’s a performance, but one that’s now essential to keep our company operating.
      Wearing a mask is fraught with political baggage for many, but in corporate flying we all know it’s just part of doing business for the foreseeable future.

    • Hi George,
      I sold my Baron two years ago. Just wasn’t flying it after I retired from the magazine business. Only 25 hours one year, and 21 the next. It pained me to let it sit in the hangar.
      After 6,000 hours over 26 years in the same airplane it was time.
      Mac Mc

  • Hi Mac:

    Thanks for the well written and informative articles over the years. I guess the exception that proves your FBO ramp rule is KJAC. My employer builds in Jackson so I’ve been flying into Jackson Hole twice per week during the last year and a half. During March the Company King Air was often the only plane on the ramp. Yesterday I had nearly the last parking space. Lots of GulfStreams and QS registrations plus a USAF 757 (C-32).

  • Glad to see your report of increased private flying activity but I cannot understand the lax attitude of flight crews not maintaining a mask protocol even in the cockpit and the passengers being allowed to sit unabated amongst themselves ………. Do you really know where everyone in the aircraft has been since you last saw them ? Allowing convenience to be the primary consideration inside the aircraft with safety on the backside, is tempting fate. My flight department has very strict protocols concerning the Covid 19 issues, and we do not allow passengers to be seated near the pilots nor closer than 6 feet amongst themselves and they must wear a mask while onboard the aircraft followed by a thorough cleaning of the aircraft prior to and after each flight.
    I am surprised at the lax attitude given to the above comments, sure we are all getting tired of this situation but why let you guard down now ?

  • Hello Mac, good story and I agree with Tony Tiger. Have flight crews tested positive in these environments, whether anecdotal or empirical evidence? I was flying instruction when Covid hit and decided the cons beat out the pros and I stopped flying with others sitting 6 inches from Me. Even with masks on both pilots it seemed a bit risky. I have called several aviation organizations but they did not have any data of transmission in cockpits available. Does anyone else keeps that information?
    Keep up the good writing and be safe.

  • As a New Zealand resident having put up with all the restrictions and inconveniences of a total lockdown and currently enjoying to all intents and purposes, a Covid 19 free environment I wonder if some correspondents will have their current attitudes remain should the unthinkable happen.

    I assume many of the citizens of Melbourne, Australia now wish they had been a little less cavalier in their observance of precautions and a lot more dilligent in observing the inconvenient but effective protocols to be undertaken reduce the likelihood of catching the virus.

    With many a kind wish.

    The DC3, F27, B737, B767 bus driver retired.

  • Mac, you said, “The reason I think we pilots—at least those of us who are still flying—don’t seem to fear our fellow crewmember is that we have always trusted the person in the other seat with our physical safety. Not to mention our livelihood. If I’m worried my crewmate won’t quarantine themselves if they are a threat how can I trust them to fly the airplane, or to monitor my performance when it’s my leg to fly?”

    And what further are you revealing about yourself in your comment to Bruce: “…we all need to keep up appearances—until we close the door. We all get it. It’s a performance…” ???

    Mac, asymptomatic transmission means what it says, so how would you or your crewmember know to quarantine yourself or know if you’re about to infect one another? Your other assertion is apples and oranges: flying skills are evident, while infectiousness is not. Even if you somehow had an accurate and recent test before each flight it can only reveal history, not the infectious reality of you or any of your associates in the present moment. And neither you nor your crewmembers had such a test before sharing tight spaces, right? Sounds like you want to disregard reality so you can fly anyway (“And I’m glad to be back flying again”), while risking infecting yourself, your crewmembers, your family, and the rest of us trying to do the right thing while suffering economic damage and deaths of friends/family through the irresponsible actions of others.

    Character is defined as doing the right thing even when nobody is looking – NOT by your assertion “we all need to keep up appearances—until we close the door.” Shame on you, and the stain you bring to our profession. Mac, if you want to be a pilot you need to be educated, think straight, have character, and act responsibly. And if you want to be a writer/opinion leader then you need to get the facts and come from honor before influencing others. Disregarding reality and responsibility because one wants to fly or to write is self-evidently the wrong approach to each.

    • Hi Steven,
      I’m guessing you hold your breath from the time you are less than six feet from your crew mate until you can strap on the oxygen mask and turn it to emergency pressure breathing for the entire period in the cockpit.
      I can’t imagine how else you achieve the level of non-contagion you enjoy.
      Mac Mc

      • The 1918 influenza pandemic killed 670,000 people in this country. It is estimated that it killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide. Back then there was some knowledge of social distancing and even mask wearing, and the people and places who practiced it saw lower infection and death rates. But there were also people back then who chafed at any and all restrictions placed on them, and they helped to spread the virus and increase the number of deaths. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

  • Mac, trying to laugh it off isn’t going to change what you said, as I referenced above. Character is part of trustworthiness, an essential part of being a pilot (and an option leader). To trick your trusting passengers into believing you’re serious about their safety destroys the trust the public places in all pilots. In saying, “It’s a performance, but one that’s now essential to keep our company operating” you acknowledge that the public insists on feeling safe prerequisite to paying and boarding an aircraft but that you then defraud them by a mere “performance” “until we close the door” is your outright fraud. Deadly dangerous fraud. And you ruin it for the rest of us who actually do work diligently to be worthy of all aspects of our passengers’ trust. As a professional pilot, as a business owner with all of my personal assets at risk in this pandemic, as a community member, and as a citizen of this country which has now become an international laughing stock due to attitudes like yours (read the international news), I’m outraged by your statements. We all should be. Being a professional pilot used to mean being worthy of the public’s absolute trust.

    • If you condone undermining pilot integrity, you go away. If you condone subverting international efforts to stop pandemic spread, you go away. The professional pilots and business people are all scrambling to bring back business through earning the public’s trust. I am. Are you? The furloughed airline and 135 pilots are out of thousands of jobs as commercial aviation is decimated. The serious, informed, and trustworthy people working day and night trying to turn this around from business and health perspectives don’t need further obfuscation.

  • Steven, thanks for speaking up, you are exactly right on all points. We all have a standard to uphold. Mac, I hope you are re-thinking your approach and talking to your fellow crew members.

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