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Flying in a time of Covid in New Zealand

Updated: Mar 18, 2021

Sharing Shah’s passion for planes, Pilot Alec Williams speaks with him about his time in the industry and taking up a job here with Air Napier weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic all but grounded the aviation industry.

Air Napier CEO Shah Aslam Pilot Alec Private Charter Plane New Zealand
Behind the scenes...CEO Shah getting ready while Pilot Alec focuses.

Shah Aslam

When Covid-19 hit last year it was a scary, unprecedented time for most people across the world. With countries shutting their borders effectively grounding all travel, I didn’t know if I would have an airline in 6 weeks, and while the CEO’s of national carriers sit in their ivory towers with the belief that all was going to be well, the reality for many national carriers is a two-word phrase – “Government Bailout”.

Alec wasn’t the only one concerned about the situation that we found ourselves in – one that was completely out of our control. When the country first went into level 4 lockdown, the majority of Air Napier’s regular clients paused. As a result, concern of job security amongst all staff grew, especially as news of layoffs from the larger scheduled providers hit the media.

The reality was like a black hole, no one knew if or where the end was. Under such circumstances the key was to firstly not run to any conclusions, rather take it day by day. Communication with all key stakeholders was important; starting with staff and making the way across the list to clients and suppliers. All we knew in the initial days was that we were an essential service provider as we were already transporting essential goods such as PPE, blood tests, medicines etc. This, in my mind at that stage, would be the reason for our potential survival.

There is a misconception in the industry around the world that countries are able to meet the requirements of air cargo/travel/transport just by relying on the national carriers. While I always believed this was exaggerated, and Covid has proven that, I think the authorities are still having a hard time believing this view. I can say with certainty that the larger commercial carriers would not have been able to meet the regions’ demands of essential freight and passenger transport if it were not for the likes of an Air Napier.

Air Napier Pilot Alec Private Charters Covid-19 New Zealand Napier
Line Pilot Alec Williams discuss the trials in aviation that came with Covid.

Alec Williams

A bit over a year ago all I kept hearing was how many pilots will be needed in the decades to come. Now hearing about layoffs and aircraft being parked in the desert not to be flown again for a couple of years or maybe more was, and still is, extremely unsettling. I have had to watch many of my peers and former colleagues, from airline pilots to flight instructors, lose their jobs or go on leave without pay.

I know I am privileged to have been one of the fortunate few who has continued to work as a pilot throughout this pandemic, and for that I am grateful. Having spent less than 6 weeks in the job with Air Napier pre-Covid19 I can tell you I was extremely concerned for my own job security and started to consider alternatives, including the possibility of moving back home to Australia. Luckily for me, Air Napier was an essential service provider, and I was able to keep my wings and continue working.

I still remember, as though it were yesterday, when the government made the announcement to go to Level 4. My phone rang, and Shah’s name was popping up on the screen. The first thoughts in my mind were you’re about to be let go. I picked up the phone and said “hello”, trying to be confident. Shah proceeded by updating me on the situation and explained what Alert Level 4 meant. All this time, only one thought crossing my mind, “Damn it Shah, bloody tell me if I still have a job or not!”

The call ended, and I headed towards packing my bags. The bags were for Nelson, where I would be flying an essential worker and overnighting for a next day return to Napier. By this stage my focus had returned to flying, and before I knew it I was checking into a hotel in a very quiet Nelson city.

From there on, not only did I get the opportunity to continue flying essential freight up and down the East Coast, I got the chance to see the beautiful landscape by conducting flights to Nelson, Auckland, Whangarei and Wairoa carrying essential freight and essential passengers.

Throughout the first few months (March – June 2020) I was in a state of conflicted emotions. I was seeing pilot jobs around me fall like dominoes. People who mentored me, who instructed me, were being re-structured out of their organizations, yet I was in the middle of completing my line training, and filling up pages in my logbook.

Queenstown view from private charter plane Air Napier New Zealand

Shah Aslam

I remember interviewing Alec for the job – as he was across the ditch it was over the phone and all I could hear was the Australian summer. It made sense as Alec said he took the call from his car which was parked up at the iconic Bondi Beach. The conversation must have gone well because less than 48 hours he was sitting in front of me. And he is still flying with us today.

Alec Williams

Being a pilot is not always a smooth ride. It’s not all beautiful skies, the latest avionics, and flying big jets. Just like any profession you start at the very bottom. I could have ended up in a government job with my Arts and Science Bachelor’s Degree. However, I decided to honour my Royal Australian Air Force heritage and saved all I could during my days of pouring beer and serving coffees so I could take flying lessons at Bankstown Airport in Sydney. I then proceeded to complete a Diploma of Aviation in Adelaide. Despite this, I wasn’t guaranteed a job and instead found myself working in a bottle shop in the Northern Territory while I door knocked every single operator in the area itching just to get up into the sky. I got there eventually, and I will tell you that flying and living remote while dodging thunderstorms and landing nearer to crocodiles than I would have liked, taught me resilience I didn’t think I had, one that served me well last year – the same year I started with Air Napier.

Navigating life as a pilot has taken a lot of mental strength during Covid. Therefore, I think it’s time to go get a hot cuppa and end my story there, but not before saying:

“Looking back on all the ups and downs so far I believe it would be hard to find the energy and enthusiasm in other jobs. It’ not about the destination but the journey that matters. Aviation will eventually bounce back; people will always want to travel. The aim is to be ready when that day comes. I wish all the aspiring captains out there not to give up hope in aviation, follow your dreams and do something that makes you happy. An office with a view beats a desk job any day.”

Shah Aslam

There has been a hype around the world about businesses pivoting. The reality is that some days you just have to sit back and control the urge to change. Choosing to “not make a decision” is “making a decision”, and a very big one at that. The capacity to remain calm and let the storm pass is a choice. Make that choice and back yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will.

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1 Comment

Tomas Chlumecky
Tomas Chlumecky
Mar 18, 2021

Hang in there Shah, follow your dream, Covid will be over one day. I am here if you want to talk.

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