Situation Update - Return to the skies - what does it take to prepare grounded aircraft for safe travel Anvil News & Updates
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SITUATION UPDATE 27 April, 2021 Back

Situation Update - What does it take to prepare grounded aircraft for safe travel

Becky Malcolm

grounded aircraft


  • At the end of 2020, most commercial pilots were either unemployed or furloughed.
  • More than two thirds of the world's commercial aircraft were grounded.
  • Demand is beginning to increase on worldwide domestic flights, especially in America, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby recently reported that US domestic leisure demand has almost completely recovered over the Spring period.
  • Pilots are being recalled and recruitment in this sector has begun already.
  • Demand for flights may outpace how quickly airlines can get their staff and planes ready to fly.


Every pilot who was furloughed must complete six weeks of training before getting back into the cockpit. Therefore, getting a pilot back takes at least two months of planning.

China has the largest group of pilots on furlough, at 24%. Europe at 16% and South America at 14% are the lowest. One in five first officers have been on furlough and 17% of captains.

Many of the planes themselves are parked in the desert, covered up until needed again. Though aircraft parking is not new, we haven’t seen it on such an unprecedented scale before. The low humidity environment of the desert is ideal for the preservation of planes as it prevents surface corrosion on all parts of the aircraft, particularly engines. Aircraft need to be stored correctly with blanks and caps fitted to engine intakes, exhausts, probes and sensors to prevent bird and insect nesting and infestation.

The process of getting each plane out of retirement and tuned up also takes weeks. At American Airlines, restoring a single plane requires about 1,000 hours of work.

When planes have been grounded for some time, getting them ready to fly again is labour intensive and skilled. Work starts with removing the vast number of engine blanks, caps and protectors covering every hole, port or probe, ensuring there are no bugs, water or debris in the system, this is extremely important, as aircraft accident investigations have shown over the years, blocked pitot-static systems can be catastrophic.

Then checking the engines, changing the oils, checking all the fluids, among the critical inspection points is the engine bleed air fifth stage check valve on some Boeing 737s. The FAA warned last summer that corrosion of this part while the plane sits in storage could cause "dual-engine power loss without the ability to restart" - a critical issue if it happens in flight.

Mechanics will be working inside the cockpit, testing computers, alarms and landing gear. Every single part has an inspection. According to American Airlines, even coffee makers on an aircraft have a maintenance manual and a prescribed test before the aircraft can go back to flight. For the final step, the aircraft must conduct a post-maintenance test flight to verify all systems before it can re-enter service carrying passengers.

Cosmetically, planes will also need work, including a good airing, an aircraft sealed up for months is going to smell pretty awful due to the lack of ventilation. Interior panels and carpeting may need replacing to overhaul the passenger cabin. This additional renovation work will keep the plane in the hangar for about 20 days.

Regular audits of operators by their governing state Civil Aviation Authority, will check validity of pilot and engineer licences and accreditations, and that the correct procedures have been followed to ensure aircraft return to service and continued airworthiness. Airlines can improve their Airline Operations Factor (AF4) by obtaining IOSA Certification which audits the airlines training, safety record and procedures. Likewise, if an airline is banned by EASA from operating within Europe, their AF4 score would be reduced.


Therefore, taking into account the planning and preparation required by each airline and the demand for flights beginning to creep up. Now is the time to review your travel risk plans, and airline safety ratings are crucial before placing any of your valuable workforce on anything other than the safest airlines. Speak to us about subscribing to our airline safety scoring service, FlightSafe.

FlightSafe is the world's most comprehensive resource for airline safety data. Covering over 1,100 scheduled airlines operating in more than 180 countries, our safety assessments provide a rational and quantified basis for managers to determine air travel safety policy that protects the welfare and security of travellers under their care.

The methodology has been refined and developed by a working group drawn from the Association's Aviation Safety Committee (ASC). The method used is a non-judgemental and fully quantified process based on an airline's past accident record and other factors, including post pandemic testing, related to underlying safety levels. Find out more here.


  •  Review corporate travel risk plans and determine air travel safety policies.
  • Build a resilient and valuable travel risk programme; that is it for growth during COVID-19 and beyond.
  • Visit our website for tools and advice including our Fit for Growth Benchmarking Tool.
  • Download our report on the Dynamic Workforce - before the pandemic hit, this highly mobile group of employees routinely worked worldwide to deliver growth. As such, they will be among the first to return to business travel and international assignments.