Grounded by the Pandemic, Aviation Geeks Find New Ways to Cope

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During the Covid-19 lockdown, travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt has developed a ritual, turning his Friday evenings into an ad hoc airline-themed cocktail hour. “Some people will remember the last time they went out to dinner; I remember the last time I got on an airplane,” says the proud aviation geek. “That was March 6. I miss looking out the window of an airplane at the beauty of the world below us.”

To make up for the months-long grounding, he’s been mixing a classic drink—a martini, or an aviation, perhaps—before serving it up in one of his collection of airline-branded glassware. His most precious glass is a coupe from the old American Airlines Admirals Club that he inherited from his father.

Harteveldt will also snap a picture of his desk, festooned with model planes and other paraphernalia, and then post it on social media as a winking nod to other grounded frequent flyers. “I’m not a big drinker, so this might be the one cocktail I have during the course of the week,” he says. “[It’s] intended to make people smile for a moment during a time when we haven’t had much to smile about. It’s a salute to the fun time we have when we’re traveling.”

The pandemic has curtailed much of the world’s aviation over the past months: At its lowest point, the Airlines for America trade group says, passenger numbers plummeted to levels last seen in the 1950s. U.S. carriers have idled around 50% of their planes, or around 3,000 aircraft, since early April.

For many, this is a welcome respite from the weary grind of flying. Even AvGeeks, as the informal group of enthusiasts is known, recognize that there are far greater concerns than how quickly they’ll again be torn between selecting chicken or beef. But even so, they’re finding creative, sentimental ways to recreate and recapture the experiences they love.

Another Man’s Treasure

Grounded by the Pandemic, Aviation Geeks Find New Ways to Cope

Ben Tucker runs Plane Industries with his brother Harry. Their U.K.-based company is one of several—along with California-based MotoArt, and SkyArt in Istanbul—that specializes in turning decommissioned aircraft parts into high-end furniture. They rescue cabin interiors from landfills and sell them to everyone from interior designers to theme park developers. (Delta has long hosted monthly surplus sales, offering items at its Flight Museum in Atlanta, but the pandemic has put those on hold.)

The Tuckers were sparked to start their company several years ago by happenstance after they learned that Britain was a world center for airline salvage. Such sites as the scrapyard at Bruntingthorpe in England have provided a steady, local source of raw materials. Plane Industries focuses on the higher-end home market, with bestsellers that include clocks made from shards of fuselage taken from the much-loved Boeing 747, as well as mod-inspired chairs that repurpose, say, old cowlings. 

Tucker says 2020 has proven to be a very busy year, so far, with gross revenue 15% to 20% ahead of 2019. The company has seen an uptick in commercial work, particularly custom pieces for offices sought by chief executive officers stuck in front of computers and missing life at 30,000 feet.

“We’ve cast our net far and wide, but it’s the one thing there’s no getting away from: Our core clients all have some affiliation with aviation in some shape or form, whether because they love planes or fly their own aircraft,” he says.

Grounded by the Pandemic, Aviation Geeks Find New Ways to Cope

The brothers have just completed a commission for the European arm of NetJets, melting down old aircraft parts for recasting as bookends to be gifted to clients. They’re also planning a new series of furniture aimed squarely at the post-pandemic worker whose business travel has been permanently displaced by Zoom videoconferencing. “People are going to be working from home a lot more, so we’re taking a punt on that by turning some big chunks of aircraft fuselage into modular, outdoor offices,” Tucker says.

Jamie Turner, who lives in rural Worcestershire in the England’s western Midlands, has already snapped up several pieces from Plane Industries for his newly built home, including a six-foot wide wall-art installation made from a chunk of an old 747, mirror-polished to a bright sheen at the top of his stairs. “It’s positioned to reflect the evening sun when it’s setting so that it glows like an airplane sunset,” Turner says.

An amateur pilot and owner of a Cessna 182, the 45-year old tech entrepreneur has spent lockdown playing with his 3-year-old son, upon whom he’s foisted many airline-themed toys—dad’s ideal alibi. And like Harteveldt, Turner has been using airline glassware for an after-work drink. In his case, it’s from the Concorde. “We’ll bring them out at any excuse,” he laughs. 

Only ‘96% to 97% Accurate’

Grounded by the Pandemic, Aviation Geeks Find New Ways to Cope

Perhaps he should invite Juan Ramos to join. The fiftysomething hotelier and entrepreneur used to fly 500,000 miles a year, mostly on Cathay Pacific, before the pandemic hit. Ramos has built not one but two full-sized replicas of an aircraft cabin.

The first represented a Pan Am 747 in Ramos’s attic, built several years ago from parts of a model he secured via the airplane graveyard in Marana, Ariz. It fulfilled his childhood dream of living in a plane, he admits. That was just a rehearsal for the life-sized recreation of a lounge and business-class cabin he’s currently enjoying.

When Cathay Pacific consigned a plane to the scrapyard—a 747, the AvGeek’s sentimental choice—Ramos swooped in and ordered a custom chunk of the fuselage, which he wanted to come with one operating door. He shipped the resulting hunk of metal to Manila, where he installed it as a working cabin with a waiting area outside. He kitted it out with old Cathay Pacific lounge furniture, much of it the work of designer John Pawson. 

Ramos is painstaking in his attention to detail and say that the experience is “96 to 97% accurate.” Only AvGeeks, he says, would notice that the bulkhead wallpaper, for example, isn’t original; the original was too weathered. Ramos even hired an engineer to wire the seats so they would convert to lay-flat beds at the touch of a button. 

He plans to host an in-flight party on the ground. “It’s going to be a dinner flight and a sleepover—the ultimate slumber party. I’ve planned the menu, and I’ve already found the crew. And they’re real crew. As it turns out, one of my neighbors used to fly for Cathay.”

Grounded by the Pandemic, Aviation Geeks Find New Ways to Cope

Few AvGeeks grounded by Covid-19 have pledged their loyalty to the skies as permanently as Bob Miller from San Antonio, Tex. The 46-year old university administrator is a particular devotee of European carrier Swiss International, even if it means indirect routings and longer journeys. 

He’ll use Swiss to transit to other countries, but his favorite destination is Switzerland itself. “I’m now on week 11 of work from home in lockdown, and I can’t fly over there until all the restrictions are lifted,” he says. “Even though you can’t fly now, you can still have fun. So, I wondered: How do I honor my commitment to them and my passion for Switzerland?”

The answer: his first tattoo, a five-inch-long recreation of the airline’s tagline, “Made of Switzerland,” on his forearm. “I’ll be flaunting it the first time I get to go [back]. I plan on wearing a short sleeve shirt on the plane.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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