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The high-flying world of the pilots of Instagram

Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN

Search the hashtag “pilots of Instagram” and you’ll be greeted by an endless amount of images of pilots in uniform posing it up.

Pilots are hugely popular on the social media platform, with some garnering more followers than Hollywood stars.

One of the most famous is Patrick Biedenkapp, or PilotPatrick, who has nearly 800,000 followers. PilotAmireh, Anas Amireh, isn’t far behind, with just under half a million.

In fact, Amireh, who also has a popular YouTube channel, says he often gets recognized by his followers while he’s flying, or even when he’s on vacation.

“Almost every country I go to, there are people who know who I am,” he tells CNN Travel. “My followers come and want to take photos, which is really cool and I share stories with them.

“When I was in New York, I went to Times Square and after five minutes a guy came up to me and was like ‘Hey Pilot Amireh.’ The world is so small.”

But why are Instagram users so captivated by pilots?

Uncharted territory

Pilot Raymon Cohen, who flies private jets and has over 80,000 Instagram followers, believes it’s due to the inaccessibility of the cockpit, adding that there’s been a definite shift since changes were made to the security of cockpits after 9/11.

“People are not welcome in the cockpit anymore, so it’s like a big secret,” says Cohen, whose Instagram handle is PilotRaymon. “Now this [following pilots on Instagram] is one of the only ways people can see what’s happening.”

Far from just admiring eye-catching images on their feeds, many of the users who follow pilot Instagrammers are looking for specific information related to aviation, from how to become a pilot, to questions related to safety, as well as airplane turbulence.

Cohen and fellow pilot Instagrammers are often contacted by young people keen to pursue a career in aviation but concerned about flight school fees, which can run up to at least $80,000 for those with no previous flying experience.

Michelle Gooris, whose account Dutch Pilot Girl has drawn around 267,000 followers, is acutely aware that many of her followers are looking for advice about aviation, and tries to make her posts as informative as possible.

“I’m more focused on providing information and shedding light on the aviation industry,” says Gooris, pictured above while in the cockpit. “I think that my audience prefers this.”

Gooris notes that the majority of her followers are male.

“I think it’s because most pilots are still male. Only a slight percentage of women want to do this job, or think that they can do this job.”

A 2019 survey conducted by the Red C on behalf of Aer Lingus polled 500 adults aged 18 to 30 and found that twice as many of the males had considered a career as a pilot.

“I’ve found that people are still often genuinely surprised when they see a female pilot,” says pilot and Instagrammer Maria Fagerstrom, also know as Maria the Pilot.

“But that’s only because we are a minority in the industry. Of all the pilots out there, 95% of them are male, and I’d would love to see that female ratio increase.

“I will continue to spread any message that brings people attention to that, because I think by regularly promoting flying as a career option to young girls we can close the gender gap — together.”

Strict guidelines

Like Gooris, Fagerstrom puts a lot of thought into how her posts come across and would never want to give followers the wrong impression about how pilots spend their days.

“I always try my best to post content that I would personally find valuable, and that I’d engage with myself,” adds Fagerstrom, who has been flying commercially since 2015.

“Either it’s informative, like a quick fun fact, or it could be a self-improvement tip. It could also be something fun, light and easily absorbed.”

But managing a popular social media platform that focuses on the “pilot life” isn’t as simple as just taking pictures between flights and hitting the “share” button.

Pilots have to be extremely careful about what they post online as airlines tend to have very strict social media guidelines.

Each airline has different rules. For instance, some allow pilots to take photos during the cruise part of the flight, while others insist on no photography at all.

“As long as people follow those rules, there shouldn’t be a problem,” says Gooris.

The consequences of breaching guidelines were laid bare when a Chinese pilot was grounded soon after a photo of a woman sitting in an airplane cockpit emerged on social media in 2019.

While the image was not uploaded by the pilot, the woman shared it on Chinese social network Weibo, along with the caption, “[I am] super thankful to the pilot! I am really so excited.”

The incident sparked fury and ultimately led to the unnamed pilot being suspended from flying duties “for life” as a consequence of violating civil aviation rules.

Although Cohen, who is from the Netherlands, doesn’t work for a commercial airline, he’s still subject to a high level of social media scrutiny and avoids posting anything that could create problems.

“If I’m not sure about posting something, I just delete it,” he says. “I think if I’m already having doubts [before posting], then surely I shouldn’t post it. Besides, I have so many nice pictures. It’s OK if I delete a few.”

But in an ever competitive social media landscape, are they ever tempted to post something risque in order to outdo other accounts?

“No one wants to risk their main job for something they do on the side,” adds Gooris, who is also the author of the ebook “Become An Airline Pilot.”

While different airlines have different policies, the majority ask that pilots avoid referencing the airline they work for on their accounts.

However, some give a select few pilots permission to do so.

Amireh, from Jordan, previously found himself in this position, but admits it caused issues with some of his colleagues.

“Nobody’s allowed to take pictures,” he says. “They [the airline] have very strict rules. We have [around] 40,000 employees and just a few guys are allowed to do this. So you can imagine how many eyes were on me.”

While he was grateful to be selected, Amireh says he’d avoid aligning himself with a particular airline in the future.

“When I was not using the airline logo, I had less trouble,” he admits. “I think it’s way better to stay with your identity [on Instagram] as a pilot without linking yourself to an airline long term.”

Authenticity factor

Authenticity is also a major factor when it comes to keeping people engaged and ensuring a level of trust between users and the pilots they follow.

In 2017, Instagram user PilotGanso came under fire due to some outlandish images on his feed, including one that showed him leaning out of an airplane window while flying.

After many of his followers pointed out that the image had clearly been altered, the Brazilian pilot began specifying which of his photos had been manipulated.

“Photoshop mode ON,” he wrote below a photo that had aroused suspicion, while adding, “I have to let you know that photo is fake guys, just in case,” to a separate image.

Although maintaining a popular social media account while having such a demanding job may seem like a challenge, Gooris says she finds it quite easy to separate the two.

“When I’m working, I forget that I have an Instagram account and a YouTube channel. I barely talk about it unless people specifically ask me about it. The influencer stuff is something I do on my off days.”

However, Fagerstrom, who has around 524,000 followers, admits that she finds it hard to switch off and feels as though she has to constantly post content in order to keep users interested.

“The downside of being an Instagrammer is that it’s difficult to take a break from from it, especially if you’ve built your small business around yourself,” she says via email.

“Because of the algorithm, it’s damaging if you’re not present every day and being consistent in your postings online, even on the days you’re not really up for it.

“It creates a feeling that you’re never good enough, never productive enough, and never creative enough.”

While pilot Instagrammers are still among the most-followed people on Instagram, Cohen says he’s noticed there was slightly less engagement on his page at the beginning of the pandemic, but puts this down to the fact he wasn’t flying as much rather than a lack of interest.

“I had less pictures of flying. And the main reason people follow me is because I’m a pilot, not because they want to see pictures of me in my garden in shorts or at a barbecue.

“So I saw that it stagnated a little bit. It goes up and down.”

A number of pilots, including Amireh, have been made redundant from airlines during the Covid-19 pandemic, while others have seen their schedules scaled back considerably.

Cohen says that young people constantly ask him whether they should go to flight school within the next year or so given the impact coronavirus has had on the aviation industry, and he tries to answer as honestly as possible.

“I tell them I don’t think it’s the best time to start aviation training right now.” he admits. “But maybe in about two, three years, it will be better.”

Gooris has also found herself in this position, and finds it tricky to be truthful without discouraging her followers from pursuing their aviation dreams.

“When people ask me directly if now is a good time to go to flight school or become a pilot, I tell them that sooner or later, people will travel again, people and airlines will need pilots again,” she says.

“But as long as pilots are paying to get a job, it’s better to wait for the economic situation to improve. One day traveling will be the same as it was before in 2019, before everything [the pandemic] started.”

“But you don’t want to be sitting at home, paying off your bills and not flying. Because that’s going to be very expensive.

“I believe people should follow their dreams but proper timing is an important aspect when it comes to achieving those goals.”

Friendly rivalry?

The number of pilots with popular Instagram accounts has grown considerably over the years, and some are much bigger than others.

Amireh points out that social media has proved to be so lucrative for some pilots that they can probably afford to ditch flying planes and live off the income generated from their platforms.

“Some pilots make a lot of money because of YouTube and through advertising,” he says. “You’d be surprised.”

So, is there any rivalry between the pilot Instagrammers?

“There are some quite nice pages out there,” says Cohen. “A few of them [other pilot Instagrammers] are good friends of mine from flight school. It’s not really a competition.

“There are some pages that are bigger than mine, obviously. But I don’t feel any competition. If you like sharing what you do, then I don’t think you need to compete with anyone.”

Gooris feels that one of the best things to come from the success of her Instagram account is that it’s connected her with other pilots she may never have crossed paths with otherwise.

“Many people know each other. It’s easy to make friends because we have the same passion. Some people grow very fast. Others don’t for some reason.”

Although Amireh has made plenty of friends in the world of Instagram pilots, he says he felt a hint of resentment from some when his platform began taking off.

“Some pilots, maybe they will not interact with you, or they will not follow you,” he says. “I don’t get so focused on this stuff. I mind my business. I don’t look at what others do. Everyone has his own style, his own content, his own ideas. It’s an open market.”

Like many of those with a successful Instagram platform, Amireh occasionally gets nasty comments and criticism, but has learned to brush off any negativity.

“At the end of the day, as a blogger or influencer, you have to understand that you will get positive and negative comments,” he says.

“Not all the people will like you. You will have haters. When I first started, I got a lot of comments like, ‘Hey boy, go and fly a plane, stop taking photos’. Some people would even report me to the airline.”

Cohen says he rarely gets any unfavorable feedback, but has noticed some unpleasant comments on the pages of the female pilots he follows.

“Some of the girls get so much negativity,” he adds. “I don’t understand this. I almost never have negativity on my page.”

Fagerstrom occasionally gets sexist comments from users on her page, and tries to stand up for herself as much as possible.

“There are people that are stuck in their stereotypical way of thinking how a pilot should behave, should look like or should be,” says Fagerstrom.

“Every now and then I receive a misogynistic sexist comment, my approach to these discouraging comments has always been to block and move on.

“But the problem with ignoring an issue like gender discrimination is that it doesn’t help to fight the problem.

“It’s important to have a conversation about it to create awareness, to recognize and acknowledge that it is a problem, are the only ways to eliminate them.”

Although he enjoys the perks of being popular on Instagram, and has been offered collaborations with brands, Cohen stresses that he does not see himself as an influencer.

“I hate the word ‘influencer.’ It gives me goosebumps,” he says. “I hope I have never influenced anyone.

“Except maybe the people that I told not to start flight school [yet]. I think I may have saved them $60,000 to $100,000 if they listened, so then I was a good influence.

“Apart from that, I think It’s fine if people like my products or my photos, my product, my photos. But am I intentionally trying to be an influencer? Not at all.”

Meanwhile, Gooris believes that pilot Instagrammers like herself can play a huge role in showing others what the job entails and convince them to give it a try.

“The main reason that we are doing it is to inform, inspire and motivate other people to achieve their dreams, whether that is becoming a pilot or doing something else,’ she says.

Amireh, whose father was also a pilot, shares this sentiment, admitting he gets choked up when his most dedicated followers recount the impact his account has had on their lives.

“Honestly, one of the best experiences I’ve had from Instagram is people coming up to me and saying, ‘you changed my life. I became a pilot because of you,'” he says.

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