Pilots and cabin crew can spend 20 days a month in isolation in order to link New Zealand to the rest of the world – but the hardest part is not feeling welcome when they come home. Matthew Scott reports.

Touchdown in Hong Kong. In different times, pilots and cabin crew may have been on their way out to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. A layover was a chance to explore exotic locales and share adventures with coworkers.

Nowdays, instead of the key to the city, cabin crew are given a single-use key card to a hotel room they will not leave for two or three days.

Such pilots spent 90 to 100 days in managed isolation last year – either during their brief stays in locations around the Pacific rim, or in MIQ facilities on their way back into the country.

But while pilots and flight attendants say the huge amount of time in isolation puts a strain on them, the real difficulty is being made to feel unwelcome when they get back home.

Dave Church has been flying for Air New Zealand for 27 years. The 787 captain says the last year has been pretty miserable for pilots.

“There’s been a lot of job losses, and some of those who kept their jobs have been down-trained,” he said. So it hasn’t just been a case of immediate financial impact – some pilots have found themselves down a rung on the career ladder, affecting their long-term job prospects.

Those who have kept their wings find themselves locked in a room up to 20 days a month. “It is a form of solitary confinement,” says Church. “It places a lot of stress on people. It’s certainly become a different job.”

New Zealand Airline Pilots’ Association president Andrew Ridling also flies 787s, or Dreamliners.

He said it’s been a tough year to be a pilot.

“We’ve ended up locked up in hotel rooms around the world. Last year, a pilot spent 140 days in isolation.”

He says the challenges of the past year taught him how difficult solitude could be for people. “The one thing I’ve learned is that we are social beings and not being with people has been hard.”

With several days of isolation on the end of every shift, pilots have spent more time than ever away from their families.

“It’s been fairly horrendous,” Ridling said.

On top of this, pilots and cabin crew are often made to feel unwelcome by Kiwis wary of infection when they do return.

“It’s not just the isolation factor,” Church said. “It’s your place in the community as well.

“I’ve had situations on the sidelines at my kid’s cricket games where people have been uncomfortable with me being there,” he said.

“We are seen as a bit of a pariah.”

Ridling puts this down to a “fairly large misunderstanding” by Kiwis about the likelihood of pilots and cabin crew spreading the virus.

“We’ve done an amazing job of keeping the borders closed,” he said. “But there’s been cases of kids of pilots not being able to go on school camps or take part in activities.”

Church wants Kiwis to know how carefully air crew take the safety precautions. “Every crew member is conscious they don’t want to be the one bringing it back,” he said.

In the past year, only three Air New Zealand crew members have returned a positive test – suggesting fastidious safety measures such as returning home via a few days in MIQ have been largely successful.

“We want people to know the measures we are taking,” Church said.

Dreamliner pilot Dave Church wants people to know how careful pilots are to be safe during layovers Photo: Supplied

But despite these difficulties, he says the pilots and cabin crew still in the air are happy to be working.

“Most realise they are an important link to the outside world for New Zealand,” he said. “We are thankful to have a job.”

Flight attendant Craig Featherby says the joy of Kiwis returning home makes the strict rules worth it.

“It’s mostly Kiwis returning home, and they are so grateful,” he said.

The relief is contagious, it seems. “We’ve had passengers say they could tell the crew were all smiling behind the masks,” he said.

While the isolation has been hard on them, Featherby says cabin crew take the responsibility of managing the virus seriously.

“On layovers, you do a Covid test, but even if it is negative you are not to interact with anyone,” he said. “It’s just us doing our bit.”

Ridling says the difficulties of the past year have brought pilots together as a team.

“We work and sleep right near each other,” he said. “So we’ve been making sure we keep an eye on one another and make sure we are okay. The feeling of being a team has definitely increased.”

The pilots hope the continued rollout of vaccines will give them an extra layer of protection and signal the relaxation of restrictions.

Dave Church is ready for things to return to some semblance of normality.

“We just want to enjoy our normal lives.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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