Captain Chris Pohl is a senior training captain with the much-loved airline Virgin Atlantic. From humble beginnings flying the Fokker F27 around Australia’s east coast, Chris has risen through the ranks, joining Virgin in 1993. Initially flying the Airbus A340, he moved on to the A350 and, most recently, the newest addition to the Virgin fleet, the Airbus A330neo.
While Chris is an integral part of the Virgin Atlantic team and well-known within the airline, he’s better known outside of the cockpit for his viral Instagram presence, something that all kicked off with this photo:
Posted at the height of the pandemic downturn, Chris urged passengers to go as crazy for airline tickets as they had for toilet roll. It was a tongue-in-cheek post, but resonated with the community, gathering tens of thousands of likes and propelling Chris into a position of ‘influencer’ in the social media space.
His account @captainchris now has more than 360,000 followers, and he’s keen to use his reach to spread positive messages about the industry, and to raise awareness of the challenges facing aviators everywhere. Simple Flying caught up with Chris almost two years after our first podcast to find out what messages he is pushing for now.
We asked Chris – if he was holding up a sign today, what would it say? His answer was clear:
“Be nice to airline and airport staff. Just be nice to them. They’re you and me. They’re just people. They’re just trying to do their jobs. The pandemic was tough for them. Just be nice to them, and they’ll get you away on your holiday or your business trip or to see your family.”
It’s a definite shift from the former idea of pressing passengers to fly more, but it’s been a trend of the past year that doesn’t seem to be going away fast. Each day, there seems to be another report of unruly conduct, assaults on airport and airline staff, and passengers behaving badly.
So what’s driving this trend? Chris said,
“Two years of people being confined to their homes seems to have made them forget to be civil; forget how to be humans, how to be nice to each other. They’ve completely forgotten their manners by being at home for two years. It’s absolutely bizarre.
“I don’t know why it’s just aviation, why airports? Don’t they realize that people are working at the airports have been in the same situation as them, and they’re just happy to be at the airport, they’re happy to have their job back, and all they want to do is get you on an airplane? They don’t want to give you a hard time.
“They’re just human beings who are trying to go about their job. They’re glad to be back doing the job …I don’t know where it’s coming from, but people lost their manners.”
Fortunately for Chris, he hasn’t personally had any seriously bad behavior on any of his flights, but he says he has heard some shocking stories from fellow crewmembers. He admits there have been some minor incidents on his flights, but says that ‘a stern word’ usually sorts it out.
Not all aviators have been as lucky. Just this week, a Singapore Airlines crew had to involve police after a passenger threatened staff members. In October, a passenger bit a flight attendant on Turkish Airlines, and another threw a bottle on a Delta flight. Despite mask mandates being widely dropped, the age of the stressed-out, angry passenger doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
More challenges for aviation
Aside from passenger behavior, Chris discussed with us some of the other challenges facing aviation today. Notably, he talked about the chaotic summer the industry has just emerged from, with airports around the world facing staffing shortages, impacting airline operations, not to mention shortages of flight and cabin crew as well.
Chris added some color to the steps required to bring furloughed workers back to an airline. On paper, a pilot could be brought back from furlough in three months, but that involves simulator training, ground training, and line training, much of which is done under the supervision of a training captain, like Chris. But if that training captain is called out for a flight or goes off sick, the training doesn’t get done. In reality, this can mean it can take five or six months to bring back a pilot.
Another issue is the security clearances required for crews to start operating flights. Speaking from experience at Heathrow, Chris noted that there had been a huge backlog to get airside IDs reinstated, with the ID department also suffering from staffing problems. This just shows that the exodus of personnel from the industry runs much deeper than many may have thought, and proves how difficult it is to stop and restart something as complex as global aviation.
“A lot of the experience has gone out of the industry. And because safety is number one in aviation, you can’t cut corners and train people that quickly. They need to gain experience. And that’s what’s slowing the airline industry down at the moment.”
The pilot shortage is real
Longer term, Chris still sees a pinch point for aviation, particularly in terms of pilots. He noted that some 50% of the world’s pilots are over 50, and that huge numbers left aviation during the pandemic. There’s no quick solution to creating a robust pipeline of future aviators, and right now, he doesn’t believe there are enough young people taking up pilot training to sustain the industry going forward.
One thing that could help is reducing the cost of pilot training for students. Chris does think it may come to the stage where airlines offer bursaries or incentives to help future aviators get their wings, but only if they have to.
“Aviation is a business. If airlines don’t have to pay for training, they won’t. However, they’ll find that they’re going to need to do that, because they’re going to need more pilots … Eventually they will have to spend the money to train the pilots, so there will be more Cadet schemes, there will be more scholarships and other incentives to get people to fly.”
Chris believes it’s a great time to join the industry for any aspiring aviator, even without any financial incentives right now. He continues to promote aviation via his social channels, and hopes that he can inspire more people from more diverse backgrounds to take the plunge and train to fly in the future.
You can listen to the full podcast with Captain Chris below: