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Special Report - Aviation Safety during COVID-19

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  • Civil aviation has been one of the most heavily hit sectors from the COVID-19 pandemic, with domestic travel declining 40% and international travel declining 60% compared to last year.
  • The impact of the pandemic has led to total global revenue losses of around USD393 billion.
  • With aircraft having been parked for extended periods of time and pilots on furlough, travellers have raised concerns surrounding safety as air travel begins to return.
  • In response to safety concerns, aviation agencies have developed benchmark guidance for recovering from the impacts of COVID-19.

Situation

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant decline in scheduled passenger flights, with domestic travel declining by 40%, and international travel falling by 60% compared to 2019’s statistics. However, cargo airlines have witnessed an increased flying program due to the sudden surge for medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) across the world. 

Overall, civil aviation has suffered immensely due to the pandemic, being one of the most heavily hit sectors worldwide. It is estimated that global airline revenue loss is circa USD393 billion, and over 17,000 airliners have been grounded and left idle, which equates to approximately 65% of the global airline fleet.

Implications

Operators such as American Airlines, Delta, Virgin, Air France & KLM are looking to bring forward the permanent retirement of their ageing fleet, which was last seen during the decline in air travel caused by the 9/11 terror attacks in September 2001. The aircraft affected by this include Boeing 757, 767, 747 models, the McDonnell Douglas MD88, and Airbus’ A340-600 and A380. These aircraft are all due for retirement in 2021 or later, but this is now being brought forward to 2020. Airlines are looking to move away from tri and quad engine aircraft, favouring the more efficient, next generation twin engine aircraft, such as the Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

As services are beginning to return to normal, travellers have raised concerns regarding safety following the long-term parking of aircraft amidst the pandemic. Although the long-term parking or storage of aircraft is not uncommon, it has not been seen on such an unprecedented level before. There are also concerns surrounding the ability of pilots who have been furloughed for some time. These are addressed below.

Aviation Staff & Traveller safety

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) member states have addressed the current situation and, in collaboration with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA), Airport Council International (ACI) World, the Civil Air Navigation Services Organization (CANSO), have developed the ICAO Council Aviation Recovery Task Force Report. This report provides governments and the air transport sector with benchmark guidance to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and addresses the health, safety, and security of the travelling public. The report is a ‘living’ document and will be constantly reviewed to ensure the latest medical and operational advice is available. 

Parked Aircraft

When aircraft are parked or stored, protective maintenance must be performed to prevent damage to the airplane. It may now be a common sight to see aircraft parked on disused runways and taxiways with windows, engines, pitot tubes, inlet, exhaust, probes, and sensors protected with appropriate covers, blanks, and plugs. This is to ensure that corrosion or damage to the probes and sensors during parking is avoided and any contamination is prevented, such as from dirt, insect infestation and birds nesting. When an aircraft is returned to service following a long period of parking, the appropriate checks and tests must be performed to ensure its airworthiness. 

Operators must comply with strict procedures regarding the storage and return to service as set out in the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) / Aircraft Maintenance Manual (AMM) provided by the aircraft manufacturer and company engineering manuals approved by their governing state Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), in accordance with IATA & ICAO standards. As a result of the mass grounding of aircraft, IATA have released a series of guides for operators to prepare and ensure the safe and smooth return to service. These include: 

  • Technical Operations: Preparing for Return to Service

https://www.iata.org/contentassets/bf8ca67c8bcd4358b3d004b0d6d0916f/iata-tech-ops-webinar_2020.06.10.pdf 

  • Guidance for Managing Aircraft Airworthiness for Operations During & Post Pandemic

https://www.iata.org/contentassets/d0e499e4b2824d4d867a8e07800b14bd/iata-guidance-managing-aircraft-airworthiness-during-post-pandemic.pdf 

  • Guidance for Flight Operations During & Post Pandemic

https://www.iata.org/contentassets/d0e499e4b2824d4d867a8e07800b14bd/iata-guidance-flight-operations-during-post-pandemic.pdf 

Pilot Training

Once a Pilot is Type Rated to a specific aircraft type, they must undergo regular training which comprises of an Operator Proficiency check (OPC) every six months, an annual Line Proficiency Check (LPC) in a simulator and in-flight line checks by a company training captain. In addition, an annual medical assessment (or twice a year, dependent on age) is also a requirement and part of a long list of training that licensed pilots need to hold, all of which are very closely monitored by both the airline and its state CAA to ensure compliance. Regardless of how many hours or years the pilot has flown, the captain and the co-pilot work together to run through checklists prior to departure, in-flight and on arrival to ensure all procedures are followed, and that nothing is missed or taken for granted. 

Airlines would ideally be rotating active and furloughed pilots to ensure all training is kept up to date; however, pilots who have not performed a minimum of three take-offs and landings within a 90-day period must sit a recurrent simulator check prior to resuming flight operations, as well as ensuring all other certificates are in date.

Advice

  • A sudden surge for crew training requirement may slow an airlines ability to resume services. Therefore, operators should try to keep pilots & cabin crew current by rotating active and furloughed staff where possible and monitor the availability of simulators and training facilities.
  • Travellers should monitor airline and government websites regularly for up to date information regarding travel restrictions and new check-in, boarding and inflight measures.
  • Where possible use operators who are IATA / IOSA registered, as these airlines aspire to meet the latest stringent procedures and measures to gain and retain IOSA approval.
  • The EU banned list is a good indicator of international operators whose standards and procedures are below par, or those that have a poor safety record.