Airline pilots woman drone phone

Airline pilots turn to drone industry for work amidst coronavirus

Anthony Mangiaracina has been a pilot for more than 25 years. He’s worked in corporate aviation, and he’s spent the last 14 years as a captain for a major airline.

These days, he’s spending most of his time on drones. After all, now is not the best time to be a commercial airline pilot.

American Airlines has suggested it might have to furlough 20,000 workers. United Airlines said it could cut as many as 36,000 jobs. 24% of Southwest Airlines pilots took early retirement or long-term leaves of absence. Delta Airlines promised no furloughs for pilots this year — but only if they accept a 15 percent cut to guaranteed pay. Pilots were once in short supply, but now they’re losing their jobs.

While it’s not an ideal situation for Mangiaracina, it’s not the worst. After all Mangiaracina has a backup plan: drone pilot.

Last year, he started a drone inspection company called Crosswind Analytics that primarily focuses on visual and thermal/infrared roof inspections using a DJI M200 drone, equipped with a FLIR Zenmuse XT2 infrared camera. He also has a Level 1 Thermographer certification.

His drone business, which is based near Chicago, Illinois started as a side hustle. Since his typical airline pilot flight schedule was 14-16 days a month, he had time to pursue his own business.

But since coronavirus, he’s had tons more time to pursue his drone business — and it’s shaping up to be a growing chunk of his income as more people request him to conduct drone flights for their businesses.

Mangiaracina’s personal experience is just proof of a broader industry trend that drone flights have increased in recent months. DroneDeploy said they saw a 33% increase in drone takeoffs among U.S. agricultural clients from mid-March to mid-April.  A Kittyhawk analysis of FAA data found that LAANC authorizations have hit record highs.

“There has been an uptick in business due to the fact that drones actually save companies money and limit their personal liability,” he said. “A drone thermal inspection of a roof, depending on the size, can almost always be done in a day and can save the client tens of thousands of dollars by pointing out ‘spot problems’ that can be repaired as opposed to replacing the entire roof.”

Of course, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Mangiaracina said business was especially slow in Mach when the pandemic really took hold in the U.S. That largely corroborates early fears around shutdowns. A study from early April found that 44% of drone companies said they saw a negative impact on their business operations since mid-March.

“But now that businesses are getting back to work, there are lots of opportunities for drone companies such as mine,” he said.

Seeing the opportunities, some pilot training programs are shifting their attention to teaching students who might have intended to work as airline pilots about potential careers in drones since the pandemic.

Skyborne Airline Academy, an airline training academy based at Gloucestershire Airport in the United Kingdom, just announced a partnership with drone training program Flyby Technology. Newly qualified pilots from Skyborne’s UKCAA/EASA Integrated and Combined Modular ATPL programs will be offered the opportunity to join Flyby Technology as commercial drone pilots, where they’ll also complete Flyby’s Beyond Visual Line of Sight training course.

“As everyone is painfully aware, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the airline industry but here is a pioneering way a top drone company and one of the UK’s leading pilot training academies have teamed up to give newly qualified pilots an alternative and potentially lucrative career flying unmanned aircraft,” a spokesperson for Flyby said.

Mangiaracina said he’s flying more than ever as a drone pilot since COVID-19. Meanwhile, he’s flying for the airline fewer hours each month, and he went on reserve this summer, not flying at all for an entire month.

And clients seem to want their drone pilots to have manned aircraft experience, seeking airline pilots to serve as their de facto drone pilot.

“Job prospects in manned aviation have fallen steeply for newly qualified pilots due to the coronavirus crisis and the terrible impact this has had on some areas of the airline industry,” said Flyby Technology founder Jon Parker, an airline pilot and former RAF fighter pilot. “We know they are very well trained, motivated and would make ideal drone pilots once we have given them further specialist training.”

And a career in drones can be lucrative. Some drone pilots say they make six-figure salaries, often not even working 40 hours a week.

Still, Mangiaracina said he makes far more money flying for a commercial airline.

“This business allows me to keep current with the UAS industry, while also making money,” he said.

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