As a cargo pilot, I have been cleared to travel abroad — I am considered essential. While most countries are locked down and admittance is forbidden, as a cargo carrier, I can enter and leave.
Most of my colleagues who fly for the passenger airlines are idled. Domestically, few people are traveling. Internationally, nations are locking them and their passengers out. As a result, my friends are getting fewer and fewer assignments and are hoping to retain their jobs.
Flying across the Atlantic Ocean, from one major airport to another, is telling of our changes. Typically, multiple carriers crowd the airways and radios. We have North Atlantic Tracks (NATS) that are used to ensure separation. Alternating altitudes are used to guarantee deconfliction. And speeds are given to make sure the faster aircraft do not overtake the slower. We even use electronic data link to cut down on the difficult chatter among so many of us.
But in today's world this is not the case.
On my most recent "pond crossing," I think that I heard reports of three other aircraft in the vicinity while over the North Atlantic. Two of them were cargo carriers. The NAT tracks weren't even established. The controllers did not seem to mind talking to you. Maybe they were lonely. Speeds were unrestricted and never were we turned down if we wanted to change to a more advantageous altitude.
Upon entrance into the European airways environment, I found it eerie. Gone were the call signs of Air France, Lufthansa, KLM and Ryan Air, among others. Instead, there was mostly silence. Truth be told, I asked for a radio check once just to make sure I was on the correct frequency. I was. There simply were so few aircraft that we not only could proceed as desired but there was nothing to be pointed out.
Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is one of the busiest in the world. It has four runways that are usually in constant use. Launches and recoveries are spaced as minimally as legally allowed, and God help the poor new pilot who gums up the system by not being ready or not understanding the difficult accent.
But on one recent day, three of the runways were closed. There was no carefully spaced order to follow into our landing. The three separate phases of tight control (approach, tower and ground) were all handled by one frequency. And after landing we were one of only two aircraft moving on the entire field as we taxied past the main terminal back to our parking spot.
My fellow crew member and I remarked how sad it was. Ninety percent of the planes on the field had covers on their engines. Taxiways normally alive with movement were parking lots. It didn't matter whether it was an enormous Airbus 380 or a small commuter aircraft, they were shut up and abandoned. And the characteristic to and fro of cars and trucks getting everyone ready was absent.
When we entered the terminal to go through the classic immigration and customs clearance, we were shocked again. Where was everyone? Comically, we wound through the serpentine line to finally arrive at the officer. Hers was the only booth open of 12. We were the only foreigners entering.
When we finally got to the main area we did see some people but less than 10% of what we normally encountered. Fortunately, our transportation found us quickly without the masses and we were whisked off to shelter in our "stay-in-room" hotel.
Today's situation is indeed depressing and I cannot help feeling forlorn. I know it will end, and someday craziness will return to our crowded airways. Until then, I miss it.
William Routt lives in Woodbury.