Flying $450 million airliners was once a dream job, and there was no shortage of opportunity. Last year Boeing Co. estimated that airlines would need to add 800,000 pilots over the next 20 years to feed an Asia-led travel boom; some carriers in China were offering salaries of more than $300,000 a year, plus perks, to woo industry veterans.

Then coronavirus began to spread and overseas travel halted, grounding 51% of the world’s global fleet. As they wait to see whether they’ll ever get back in the cockpit, pilots have turned to a mishmash of odd jobs and second-choice careers.

They’re hardly alone—some 1 billion workers across industries worldwide could face unemployment or pay cuts as a result of lockdowns, border closures and economic paralysis. But few jobs have swung from a stubborn and severe shortage to a vast surplus within a matter of weeks, and it offers insight into how one specialized workforce is adapting to a potential hammer blow.

“We will do anything we can by problem solving and managing risks to protect our families,” said Chris Riggins, a pilot for Delta Air Lines Inc. and a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. “If that means working in a grocery store, pilots will do it.”

In fact, some are working at supermarkets, others at phone companies, still more learning to drive trucks or working in financial services. Many are finding that the side gigs they’ve developed over the years are now the mainstay.

Two years ago, Qantas Airways Ltd. pilot Richard Garner, who is based in Brisbane, set up a company to provide financial advice and arrange loans for airline staff. It was never meant to be a career—he flew his first plane at 14 and never wanted to do anything else. Until March, he was flying Airbus A330s on popular long-haul routes between Australia and Asia, then Qantas furloughed two-thirds of its 30,000 employees, including the 43-year-old Garner.

Now, he said, his firm, Crew Financial, “has turned into the No. 1 gig. It’s not the story I really wanted to have, but when the world gives you lemons, make lemonade. Isn’t that what you say?”

Domestic flights are starting to take off again in many countries including China and the U.S., the world’s two largest air travel markets. American Airlines Group Inc., for example, is boosting its July schedule by 74% compared with June—and it’s still well short of its 2019 capacity.

While the increase is providing some relief, flights globally are down more than two-thirds compared with this time last year, according to flight-tracker OAG Aviation Worldwide Ltd. Airlines in Western Europe, Latin America and South Asia were more than 70% below their pre-virus flight schedules as of June 8, OAG said.

It’s not clear when, if ever, the industry will fully recover. Airlines worldwide are looking at $84.3 billion in losses and a 50% drop in revenue this year, according to the International Air Transport Association. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. last week said it needed to raise HK$39 billion from the Hong Kong government and shareholders to avoid collapse, and Chairman Patrick Healy warned of “tough decisions” in the fourth quarter to get the airline into “the right size and shape.”

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