The life of flying

If any job sector is unfazed by economic slumps and a general mood of uncertainty, it is surely that of the exclusive club of airline pilots. A recent shortage in the number of available personnel ? a subject recently covered by Air Cargo Middle East & India ? has ensured that many pilots, whether passenger or freight, are subject to salaries and benefits that are the envy of their predecessors.


If any job sector is unfazed by economic slumps and a general mood of uncertainty, it is surely that of the exclusive club of airline pilots. A recent shortage in the number of available personnel – a subject recently covered by Air Cargo Middle East & India – has ensured that many pilots, whether passenger or freight, are subject to salaries and benefits that are the envy of their predecessors.

But there is often a perceived discrepancy between the glamour of carrying passengers and that of freight work. In an attempt to ascertain whether this is in fact the case, we spoke with Louis Lempereur, a chief pilot with TNT Airways, a division of Dutch giant TNT Express, about his career and experiences in the hot seat.

“In a nutshell, boxes don’t complain or become sick, and in times of economic crisis, those boxes keep on wanting to travel,” he laughs. “From my perspective, it is indeed more comfortable, enjoyable, varied and secure from an employment standpoint to work on a freighter, especially on the 747”.

TNT Airways has a dedicated fleet of 47 aircraft based at the company’s air hub just outside the Belgian city of Liege and while its air operations are concentrated mainly on supporting its extensive European road networks, it is building a significant presence in China, South-East Asia and Brazil via a policy of local acquisition and organic growth. The company also wet-leases two 747s from Emirates Airlines’ cargo division, SkyCargo, to boost the burgeoning trade between Dubai and its European base.

With the opening of a thrice-weekly service between Liege and Singapore in June this year, TNT is now establishing a long-haul backbone that will link Europe to Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport via Singapore. Capacity take-up on the west-bound leg of this link currently stands at around 92%, and while east-bound utilisation is understandably considerably lower, TNT expects this to pick up in due course, as hi-tech trade links become stronger.

With the importance of the Dubai route ever increasing, Air Cargo Middle East & India recently spoke with Marie-Christine Lombard, group managing director of TNT Express, about the company’s hopes for the Middle East.

“At the moment, it’s hard to say, but we have just witnessed 53% growth on our UAE road network,” she explains. “Over the next two, three, or four years, we are going to be taking a close look at the region. Greenfield growth is very difficult and our recent experiences in China, India and Brazil show that wherever we can, we go for acquisitions. But, at the moment, I feel we have a truly excellent relationship with Emirates.”

As the lead pilot on the Liege-Dubai sector, Lempereur is well-acquainted with the endless procedures that flying inevitably involves, but sees little difference in terms of technique and training between the cargo and passenger disciplines. “Aircraft are operated with the same flying techniques, rules, regulations and safety demands as passenger flights,” Lempereur says. “On long-haul east-west flights, even the schedules are the same as they are for passenger flights, but short-haul freighter flying is obviously more a nightly operation.

For Lempereur, the road to his current position at TNT has been a long one. “I was trained as a military pilot in 1970,” he outlines. “The flight training at that time would be organised in four phases – initial or elementary, advanced, transition and operational. At the end of three years, the student pilot would have shiny wings pinned to his uniform and told that he was now cleared to go and learn to fly, although my learning hasn’t stopped since then.”

Times have changed significantly, of course, and nowadays young European pilots are trained in a fashion that is closer to the American model, with relatively youthful officers able to qualify as a co-pilot on a commercial airliner faster, often depending on the amount of money they are able to invest in training.

Following training, Lempereur’s first commercial job was with Trans European Airways. “I then moved to Malta and flew for its national airline for eight years and then, in 1994, I joined Eva Air in Taiwan to start the MD11 operation,” he recalls. “In 1998, I transferred onto the 747, and then joined Korean Air in Seoul in 2001. After that, I returned to Taipei in 2004 with China Airlines before returning to my nest in Belgium.”

The choice to work for TNT, a company that prides itself on its claim to engage and motivate employees successfully, was taken due to the Liege hub’s proximity to Lempereur’s own home and family. “When I heard that TNT Airways was going to acquire a B747-400 freighter for its operations, I knew that this was the opportunity I had been looking for to live and work amongst the people of my tribe once again,” he remarks.

Does Lempereur find his work varied? “Not as varied as one might tend to believe, and on long-haul operations, rather a weekly or a monthly routine than a daily one,” he indicates. “On the sectors flown on behalf of Emirates SkyCargo, the typical TNT long-haul pilot will report at headquarters and will then be taken on a three-hour taxi ride to a remote airport such as Amsterdam or Frankfurt. After resting, he will then fly his aircraft from that remote airport to another, six hours eastwards.” Between 12 and 72 hours later, the pilot will then depart on a seven-to-eight hour journey further eastwards, and after another 72 hours, he will then return back towards Liege, following roughly the same pattern. “In the meantime, he will have encountered countless delays on the ground, monsoon storms, endless boring hours of instrument monitoring, a dozen different English accents to decipher over the radio communications systems, turbulence and the rising sun in his tired eyes,” Lempereur jokes.

Having experienced both passenger and freight flying, TNT’s chief pilot seems to have little doubt about which he prefers. “Obviously there are drawbacks vis-à-vis passenger flights,” Lempereur remarks.

“There is often waiting and delays; boxes do not walk aboard. The schedules can often be tough – boxes travel when people sleep – and there may be a lack of glamour for some – boxes unfortunately don’t date young pilots. However, the freighter flying experience is the one most sought after not only by experienced and mature pilots but by younger officers seeking to be exposed to a richer experience than a ‘line’ operation.”

In terms of working hours, Lempereur indicates that this too can vary. Shifts start from reporting time, which can be at any point on a 24-hour basis, until sign-out time, which is on average 12-14 hours later. For the chief pilot position, Lempereur often finds that his general working shift is from midnight to midnight, which does not mean actual working hours, but availability.

As a consequence, standard operating procedures to combat fatigue are of the highest importance and each pilot has his own approach in addition to these procedures. “You need discipline,” observes Lempereur. “Eat light – I definitely avoid eating airline food casseroles – drink plenty of water, no carbonated drinks, and exercise regularly between flights. It’s also important to sleep at local time in the evenings and wake at local time in the mornings, as much as the schedule allows.

“During long-haul flights, I organise cat naps with the crew – a discipline I learnt from the Chinese – keep myself busy with varying tasks, preferably all related to that particular flight or operation, and listen to crew gossip, an activity which is an interesting one in my position, besides often being hilarious,” he adds.

With such a wealth of experience in the aviation sector, Lempereur has had more than his fair share of odd experiences in the cockpit. On two occasions, he was forced to shut down an engine over the Pacific Ocean after a mechanic had forgotten to tap the oil tank after refilling and before closing the cowl.

On another occasion, a large bird flying into one of the engines forced a shutdown just after take-off, while having to divert due to the weather closing particular destinations has also occurred. However, it does seem that these incidents are more of a distant memory than a potential modern reality. “Nowadays, an abnormal operational occurrence starts when a pilot does not find the crew bus ready and waiting for him at the beginning of his flight,” he smiles.

Having manned the controls of a number of different aircraft over the years, Lempereur is keen to point out the qualities of each. “I think my ideal aircraft would be one built with the technology of an A380, the flight deck of an MD11, the performance of a 747 and the manoeuvrability of a fighter jet,” he states. “However, aircraft are not built for pilots, sadly, but for CEOs and CFOs, so the one I enjoy flying the most right now has to be the 747.”

As TNT Express extends its emerging market influence throughout Asia and Russia, it is clear that a stronger focus on the strategic position of the Middle East is sure to come soon, especially given its fruitful relationship with Emirates SkyCargo. As an integral cog in this partnership, Lempereur is now focussed on carrying out the TNT objectives to the best of his ability, before retiring to a house by the Mediterranean.

“I feel I should conclude by saying that aviation was a much more pleasant and attractive job 35 years ago, but that is probably because I was 35 years younger,” he comments. “In reality, there is not much difference between then and now, nor between flying passengers and freighters, as it all depends on your attitude. A positive outlook can take you to where the sky is no longer a limit, as long as you keep the blue side up!”

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