Hands up if you’ve ever changed jobs and retrained in something completely different? Yes, OK, people do that. Hands up if you were a surgeon and decided to become an airline pilot. And then decided to set up a company specialising in training the health industry and others in error management. No? Just Niall Downey, then?

Niall is fascinating. A Derry boy now living in Lissummon who trained as a cardio-thoracic surgeon, has flown the world with Aer Lingus, given a TedX talk, trained other pilots and now wants to use his experiences and philosophy to help companies avoid human error, saving lives and money.

Niall Downey at Basin Quay in Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Niall Downey at Basin Quay in Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

So I feel a bit of an underachiever meeting him, but Niall is also very generous with his time and knowledge, and he is funny and kind. It’s actually very comforting to know that like the rest of us, he didn’t anticipate what could happen this year.

“At the start it was sold as the flu. At worst, we thought it would be like Foot and Mouth and it would slow things down for a few months and then pick up. And we’re still learning a lot about this virus – we still don’t understand how it behaves and what it does. The virus impacts young and old people with no obvious pattern. It can kill young people while leaving old people relatively unaffected or vice versa.”

“That’s why we need to be careful about some of the decisions we’re making. We’re making pronouncements about things we don’t really know yet. I don’t think the science has changed but rather the public relations has changed. At the start we didn’t wear masks because there weren’t enough to go round  so we were told they were a bad idea, but now there are masks and face-coverings but the message is out there that masks are bad.”

Niall Downey
Niall Downey

“I think Northern Ireland has done better than average. There are inconsistencies, the biggest one being that the schools are going back with few restrictions but you’re not allowed to get on board my airplane even though we’ve made more changes.”

In Niall’s words, the airline industry has been “decimated”. “Aer Lingus makes its money on the transatlantic flights. As of last week, the figures showed we’re carrying 3% of our normal number of passengers. Aer Lingus is losing €1.5 million a day and the Irish airlines aren’t getting bailed out. We’ve asked the Irish government for help but we’ve got nothing. There won’t be an Irish aviation service next year. That impacts on the global business in Ireland, such as Facebook and Google who could move operations elsewhere.”

That’s shocking and if it happens, so many other industries in Ireland will suffer. But Niall has still been working non-stop, on a 50% paycut. And when he is at home, which is a little more than normal, he’s been home-schooling. “It’s been quite productive”. Just a bit…

“For the last 20 years, I’ve been staying in hotels two or three nights a week. Since March, I’ve been home every night. I’ve had more time to read, to write articles. Stuff that has been brewing for a few years. I have been doing more flying than average because I’ve been volunteering for flights from Belfast, to save other pilots having to drive up from Dublin.”

Niall’s four children have also been incredibly busy. This is a wonderfully musical family and despite various music exams being cancelled, they’ve all kept creating and playing. Twins Méabh and Aoife sing and perform with Flynn Performing Arts (check out the link below for their incredible renditions). Daire, who is an amazing pianist, has also been recording his work.

Niall giving his TEDx talk at Stormont.
Niall giving his TedX talk at Stormont.


Conor, the youngest, was studying with Niall for his transfer test until that was cancelled. “It’s been hardest for Conor because he’s only 10. We set up a group with his friends, playing Minecraft every day at 3.30. But he’s missing his friends and the routine of school.”

What has Niall discovered with his time off? New music, books? “I’ve discovered sleep! The last couple of years I’ve been purely on the Atlantic service. With the time difference and juggling sleep, I was missing 1 to 2 nights’ sleep. We’ve noticed pilots have started to suffer health-wise more recently so it’s been great to have time to recover and sleep in my own bed.”

What about now? Is this a more anxious time now that things are opening again? “I think people are getting impatient to get back to normal but I don’t think there’s going to be ‘normal’ for a long time. It does make me nervous, especially the schools because I don’t think that’s been thought through. There’s political expediency to get kids back to school but I don’t think that should be at any cost.”

We talked until the woman behind the counter had to tell us that the café had closed. We talked about John Hume, a close family friend, the sadness of his loss, his legacy and his amazing wife, Pat. We talked about sport, professional cycling (did I mention Niall raced alongside Stephen Roche?) and the damage the virus has done to the entire season. We talked about the state of America and how Niall’s children have exposed him to TikTok – “I’ve been seeing things I didn’t know existed!”. 

Niall reflects on the past few months. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
Niall reflects on the past few months. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

“I’m ready to go back to normal but we’re not going to get the luxury of that for a while yet. The pilots have already agreed with Aer Lingus that we’ll stay on half-pay for the foreseeable future to try and keep things afloat. That’s 750 pilots”

If Ireland loses Aer Lingus because of this, it will be a huge loss. Not only to no longer having a national airline but to those pilots that have sacrificed time and money and the other four thousand people who work there, the industries that support it, the businesses and people that use it.

Niall has seen the impact of the virus from the viewpoint of an industry severely impacted and as a medical expert. It’s a sobering reminder of what has happened this year and how we have still to learn a lot from it all.  

Watch Niall’s TedX talk here: FRAMEWORKHEALTH.NET






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