As the network continues to grow, we speak to Mark Vanhoenacker, British Airways Senior First Officer – and author of several books including Skyfaring – about the impact of COVID on his day-to-day job, flying bellies full of cargo, and what IAG Cargo transported on those cargo-only services
How long have you been a pilot for?
I started my flight training just before 9/11. I joined BA on the Airbus A320 fleet in early 2003. I first flew the Boeing 747—and fulfilled a childhood dream—in 2007. In 2018, I switched to the 787.
What was life like as a pilot before COVID struck?
Like most people who work in aviation, I love airplanes and the little kid in me still can’t quite believe I get to spend my workdays (and work nights) around airliners. Aviation is a special field for that reason—I think a lot of us retain that original fascination throughout our careers.
How did COVID impact your day-to-day job?
I remember very clearly the turmoil in the industry in the aftermath of 9/11, when I was still training, and then the disruption of the volcanic ash cloud in 2010. I don’t think many of us imagined that we’d see an event that would have an even greater impact on aviation and travel.
I flew a mix of services — some were cargo-only, and others were passenger services, but with fewer passengers, of course, so the cargo on board was more important than ever. Indeed, in the absence of most passenger bags, we had the capacity to fit and lift even more payload. I didn’t operate any flights with cargo stored in the passenger cabin, but I understand that this was done on several important routes. I also spent more time in BA’s full-motion flight simulators than ever before. Pilots must operate certain number of flights in each time period in order to maintain our ‘recency’. If we go too long without performing a take-off or landing, we go ‘out of recency’, and then we must go in the simulator with a training pilot, to complete a specified set of manoeuvres.
What it was like flying cargo-only flights?
I think it’s fair to say that my colleagues and I all gained a new sense of the importance of cargo—both to our airline and to the world. As flight crew we only learn the details of cargo that qualifies as ‘notifiable’—typically loads that have particular safety profiles or temperature requirements. The rest of the cargo is essentially invisible to us, aside from its weight and balance, and the glimpses we might get as we complete our pre-flight exterior inspection of the aircraft and pause to wonder at the contents of the pallets waiting to be loaded and flown across the planet. Early on in the pandemic we all got a new appreciation for the fact that cargo was critical to our survival; and that it was, in fact, an opportunity, because so few other planes were flying.
What destinations were the majority of your cargo-only flights travelling to?
Most were to North America, but others were to India or the Far East. I had never flown the 787 on short-haul routes, but during the pandemic there were flights to places like Stuttgart, which many of us on the 787 had not seen in years, since we flew the Airbus. I believe those flights picked up automotive parts which were then flown on to North America. Such routes were an enjoyable bit of variety for many of us, and a chance to do some flying that didn’t involve overnight sectors, or nights away from home in hotels down-route.
How busy have the cargo-only flights been?
Long-haul airplanes, especially more modern and fuel-efficient aircraft like the Boeing 787s I fly, typically take off at weights that are much greater than our maximum landing weight. Then, as we burn fuel during the flight, our weight reduces and normally, by the time we reach our destination, we’re well below our maximum landing weight. In the Covid era we have carried so much cargo that we’ve sometimes landed only half a tonne or so below our maximum landing weight. To do that routinely was new for many of us, and involves particularly careful checks of our required landing distance, which depends on the aircraft weight, the wind, the air temperature, the state of the runway (i.e., if it’s wet or snowy) and other factors.
And could you tell us what type of cargo you were transporting? (And how vital it was these were transported)
Our notifiable loads often included temperature-sensitive commercial cargo like fish, and it felt good to think that our work was helping other people—fishermen we would never meet, for example. We carried a lot of pets, and we speculated that these belonged to people who had been living abroad and were returning from jobs as expatriates that were disrupted or ended by the pandemic. Sometimes we transported human remains, and it was sobering to wonder if these deaths were the result of the pandemic.
On a more optimistic note, we often carried medical supplies, PPE, and some of the materials (such as reagents) required in vaccine production. I did not carry vaccines themselves, though many of my colleagues did. I think everyone involved in transporting cargo like these should feel pride as we hopefully come to the end of this difficult period. We live in an interconnected world, and when a lot of those connections were paused or ended, the ones that remained were all the more vital.
How did COVID change your personal experience of flying?
It’s definitely made me appreciate once again that I’m glad to have a job I love. I saw a statistic recently that around one third of world trade is transported by air—including nearly all of the most sensitive, valuable, unique, or perishable items. I’ve also developed a new understanding of the importance of cargo, not only to our airline—which might not have survived otherwise—but also to our globalising world.
How does it feel to return to transatlantic passenger flights?
It’s a pleasure, of course, to see more faces of passengers again—and they are excited, too, to return to travel and to the world. But the experience of the pre-flight inspection, when I see the cargo that is waiting to be loaded into the hold along with the bags of our passengers, has a new poignancy to me. I expect I’ll retain that for the rest of my career.
Senior First Officer Mark Vanhoenacker is the author of several books, including Skyfaring and the forthcoming Imagine a City. Follow him on Twitter @markv747, and find links to his writing at markvanhoenacker.com.