How Celeste's 32-Year Career as a Pilot Was Ground to a Halt by the Coronavirus

2 comments by Sarah Peterson

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March, the travel industry ground to a halt. 

Airports filled up with panicked travelers and expats trying to return to their home countries. 

Some were ordered to shelter in place. Others were exposed to COVID-19 on their travels. Many had to cancel trips. Flight crews had to risk their health and wellness to work. 

These individual experiences weave together to make up the story of travel during COVID-19 -- a collective history that deserves to be documented. We wanted to share the stories that members of our community shared with us. 

This is the story of Celeste Pearce, a pilot of over 30-years whose aircraft was retired due to COVID-19. 

Having flown through the aftermath of 9-11, and now an unprecedented global pandemic, her story, and perspective deserves to be told. 

Pilot, Interrupted: A 32-Year Career Ground to a Halt by a Global Pandemic

Celeste has been an airline pilot for one of the biggest airlines in the US since 1988. 

Flying on average 15 flights per month between the USA and Europe in the summer, and the Caribbean in the winter, Celeste's career was put on pause when she was forced to go on disability leave. Excited to return to work after recovery, she was just settling in after her comeback when COVID-19 hit.

February was an idyllic month for Celeste. She was based out of beautiful Phoenix, Arizona, able to avoid the cold East Coast winter weather right when it begins to wear on you the most. Flying between PHX and Lihue, Kauai, the temporary assignment Celeste was on made a smoother transition out of winter. 

As March rolled around, she was scheduled for 16 days of work, flying between PHL and the Caribbean. 

But Then, Everything Changed

Celeste, who had piloted flights for her airline since 1988, ended up working only 11 due to COVID-19 cancelations. 

Her airline was hit hard financially by pandemic, losing millions a day and facing layoffs. The airline was forced to make a quick money-saving decision to retire Celeste’s aircraft, the 767, 1-2 years earlier than originally planned.

“I flew the last flight out of Montego Bay to PHL, and my St. Maarten flights were all canceled. It was so surreal to walk through an empty terminal and have 16 people on our aircraft going to Jamaica in March. 
My last flight was a 3-day domestic trip, and all but 1 of my flights were canceled. I only flew from SFO-MIA on March 24th. We only had 26 people on a 767, which normally accommodates 200- passengers.”

Working in the Aviation Industry During the Beginning of the Outbreak

We wanted to know what it was like to work in one of the most highly impacted industries in America during the beginning of the outbreak. Celeste says that it started off relatively calm. 

“Earlier in March, coronavirus was just talked about. It didn’t seem like it would really affect us. 

But that quickly turned, and by my next flight a few days later, I noticed people becoming nervous and fearful. 

By mid-March, the airports were becoming sparsely populated, and some airline workers were scared and wanted the airlines to stop flying.” 

We were interested to hear what the underlying feeling was at airports during the month of March.

“I flew out of JFK when the airport opened after 9-11, the scene was similar in some ways. As airport workers after 9-11, we all would look at each other very compassionately, our eye contact stating ‘we will never forget, we’re in this together.’” 

While Celeste reports that flight crews were certainly behaving similarly, passenger attitudes were a different story.

“Passengers after 9-11 were humble, extremely grateful and kind. During COVID-19, though, passengers were fearful, very hesitant to return a hello or smile and many avoided eye contact. It was a very cold, sterile feeling.”

How Airlines Implemented Increased Safety Measures 

If you were to fly now, nearly 3 months after the pandemic was declared, your experience would be different from a flight you were to take in March.

Airlines are beginning to expand their routes, the World Health Organization has published health guidelines and safety standards that have been widely-adopted by airlines, and passengers have adapted to a new norm. 

But in March, the industry was grappling with how to respond to an unprecedented and extremely sudden global emergency. We asked Celeste what it was like in the airports and inflight at that time. 

“In March, some workers and passengers wore masks, and seating was spaced out manually by some ticket agents. Since hardly anyone was flying, this wasn’t an issue. 

Some shifts were happening with inflight service, like serving food with wrappers still on.” 

In terms of protecting flight crews, some measures were put in place as well. 

“We didn’t leave the gate unless we had extra hand sanitizers and wipes for ourselves, the cockpit and cabin. We were learning what cleaning methods were recommended and approved for the cockpit instruments.
At PHL, flight crews were able to park at the regular terminal parking lot in PHL for free. The crew lot is far and the bus was always crowded, so as employees this saved us a lot of time and unnecessary human contact.”

The Outlook of Post-Pandemic Air Travel 

While many airlines are seeing modest improvements to their bookings since March, especially for domestic routes[*], the aviation industry has a long way to go to full recovery.

“The size of the economic impact on the global airline industry is the unknown but nothing less than ginormous. 
7 years after 9-11, airlines still hadn’t made a full recovery. Then the housing crisis came, followed by a recession. Airlines need future bookings to survive. They use revenue from tomorrow's bookings to pay for today’s operations. 
The challenge with this pandemic is that airlines have had to refund so much of future booking money and still survive. Cash is pouring out everywhere with no revenue coming in. 
Adding new markets and additional routes are a thing of the past. We’re all hoping for a quick turnaround.”
We asked Celeste whether she’ll be able to return to work in the foreseeable future. It’s complicated for pilots.
“My airline, like most other carriers, has thousands of pilots to train because of the retirement of aircraft, pilots electing early retirement, and the ‘right-sizing’ of the airline. 

I’ll be back in the sky after training on a new aircraft, anytime within the next 6 months. 
The amount of training, restructuring schedules and forecasting the unknown that has to be done is monumental, and most airlines are focusing on very short term forecasting, month to month flights and a 2-year plan for survival”

The Risk of Exposure to COVID-19

“On April 3rd, I received a letter that I had worked with someone on March 24th who had since contracted COVID.” 

Celeste was fortunate enough to avoid contracting the virus, having since been tested negative for COVID-19 antibodies. 

Nobody knows what the long-term impact of this pandemic will have on the aviation and travel industries. 

Flying may forever look a little different. Perhaps international pleasure travel will cool in favor of more domestic exploration. Hopefully, the focus on health and wellness when we travel will remain a priority.

“I’m praying my industry can make it back in the 2 years they forecast but so much damage has been done, and unlike 9-11, this is global. I look forward, hopefully before I retire, to have the demand, loads, and frequency the airlines provided in 2019!”

Sarah Peterson
Sarah Peterson

Sarah Peterson is the co-founder and head of marketing at FLIGHTFŪD. She's a travel health expert and after having visited 20+ countries as a digital nomad and flying every 4-6 weeks for business, she became passionate about empowering others to protect their bodies on the go.


  • Kimberley Ross

    You are a superstar. I loved seeing you again after a thousand years since high school. Just hearing the word “retirement” attached to you is uncomfortable! Your work is valiant and your persistence a huge example for women like me. Its been an honor to know you in this lifetime Celeste! Brilliant, gorgeous and just all-round fabulous! Good luck with the imminent future.

  • Mihran Batzanian

    U and only U
    Can fly me anywhere.
    Your ❤ is all in.
    Can’t wait to hear about your new toy.
    U go girl !!
    B safe.

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