Pilots Are Back in the Air Photo: Bloomberg

Safety concerns as out-of-practice pilots are making mistakes back in the air

*As increasing vaccination rates against the COVID-19 disease allow air travels to resume across the world, there are also growing concerns that a lack of proficiency, confidence, or simply a moment of forgetfulness by thousands of out-of-practice pilots could lead to tragedy

*’It is really a critical situation….  There is going to be a point beyond which you cannot stretch standards. Standards are there for a reason,’ say experts

Gbenga Kayode | ConsumerConnect

As airplanes return to the skies across the world, following an increase in economic activities and air travels after lockdowns and other restrictions since the outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, a number of out-of-practice pilots, confidentially, have declared dozens of mistakes they committed midair.

It was gathered such critical pieces of information are stored on a ‘low-profile database’ designed to identify emerging safety threats in the recovering global aviation industry.

ConsumerConnect reports some experts have noted, that in a line of work like aviation industry where there is little room for professional error, the dangers become stark.

While most of the mistakes are minor, including flying momentarily at the incorrect altitude or speed, or taxiing across a runway in the wrong place, some of the worst aviation disasters are rooted in ‘seemingly inconsequential missteps’, according to report.

Pilots making errors midair

Back in the cockpit after time off recovering from COVID-19, for instance, an airline pilot in the United States (US) forgot to start his plane’s second engine for takeoff, a mistake that could have ended in disaster if he had not aborted the flight.

Another pilot, fresh from a seven-month layoff because of the damaging pandemic and descending to land early in the morning, realised almost too late he had not lowered the wheels and pulled out of the approach just 800 feet (240 meters) from the tarmac at the airport, agency reports said.

Barely weeks earlier, a passenger plane leaving a busy airport headed off in the wrong direction, flown by a captain who was back on deck for the first time in more than six months.

All these potentially disastrous errors all took place in the US in recent months as pilots returned to work in the country.

However, on what the immediate cause(s) of the disastrous mistakes midair was, in every case, the crew blamed their oversight on a shortage of flying during Covid-19, report noted.

The reported incidents are among dozens of mistakes, confidentially declared by out-of-practice pilots since the start of the pandemic, that are stored on a low-profile database designed to identify emerging safety threats in the industry, Bloomberg report also stated.

Although the aviation monitoring programme funded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is decades old, it is now flashing warning signs as airplanes return to the skies in several economies across the globe.

100,000 pilots working ‘skeleton hours’ or on leave globally

Amid the pandemic, it was learnt that deep cuts by airlines has left some 100,000 pilots globally working ‘skeleton hours’ or on long-term leave, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

Naturally, many the affected pilots have not flown for over 18 months, according to report.

Accordingly, as rising vaccination rates allow travel to resume, concerns are growing that a lack of proficiency, confidence, or simply one moment of forgetfulness could lead to tragedy.

“It is really a critical situation,” said Uwe Harter, a grounded Airbus SE A380 pilot for Deutsche Lufthansa AG who is also the Executive Vice-President for Technical and Safety Standards at the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations.

Harter stated: “The last thing the industry needs now is a bad accident.”

According to the pilot, while some airlines are providing pilots with adequate retraining, others are offering “the bare minimum,” if anything at all.

Harter, who himself has not flown an aircraft since February 2020 also noted that “the regulations that we have aren’t sufficient,” report said.

What aviation regulatory authorities are doing

It is not as if authorities are blind to this. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, which sets industry standards, and the International Air Transport Association have seen the risks looming for months.

But both bodies, as well as Europe’s top aviation regulator, have published detailed training guides to help airlines transition out-of-practice pilots back into the air.

Nonetheless, interviews with pilots from Asia and Europe, in addition to the database of anonymous accounts in the US, reveal varying degrees of ability and confidence among the pilots who have returned to duty, including even those who have completed retraining programmes in flying.

Report indicates that is partly because no amount of classroom or virtual theory, or practice in a flight simulator, can replicate the real-life pressures of a cockpit in the real sense of it.

It is also observed if such retraining and preparations fully take into account the psychological, emotional and financial stresses from the pandemic weighing on airline crew during the disruptive pandemic.

Financial losses in aviation industry in 2020

The global aviation industry has largely been defined by its colossal financial losses totalling about $138billion last year alone, and another $52billion expected in 2021, since the Coronavirus pandemic brought air travels to a standstill.

In spite of this financial situation, as the industry endeavours to claw back some of its lost revenue, managing the safety risks posed by returning pilots is considered an additional burden, and one that airlines with stronger balance sheets have the luxury of handling more proficiently than others, report said.

The scale of the problem is said to be partly documented on the US Aviation Safety Reporting System, the database of safety incidents voluntarily reported by pilots, crew and air-traffic controllers.

The pilot (name withheld) who tried to get airborne on an engine December 2020 said in his report that his recovery from a COVID-19 infection was “heavy on my mind” and contributed to his “lack of focus” while flying.

The US ASRS reports do not name the crew, airlines or airports involved in such mistakes back in the air, report stated.

Stakeholders’ takes on air incidents and consumer safety

Flight Safety Foundation, a Virginia-based not-for-profit group that advises the aviation industry, has said it is aware of the incidents on the ASRS database, and is monitoring the situation globally.

Hassan Shahidi, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Foundation, said: “The more we know about potential safety issues, the better we are able to mitigate the risk.”

According to a study by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Arizona, February 2021, it is worrisome that the number of incidents tied to a lack of pilot proficiency climbed almost immediately after the pandemic began to disrupt commercial flying schedules.

Rajee Olaganathan, an Assistant Professor at the University, found one such ASRS report in the eight months before March 2020, then 10 in the next eight months. All of them referred to problems landing the aircraft, report stated.

In one, a pilot described approaching the runway with too much altitude. “I wasn’t at the comfort level I would have liked,” he wrote.

Olaganathan disclosed in an interview that her findings indicate airlines need to educate pilots about skill deterioration and build suitably tailored training programmes, though crew also need to be candid about their abilities.

She said: “Pilots need to make an honest assessment of their skills and confidence upon returning to work.”

The obvious dangers posed by poor pilots, even before Covid, have made the job one of the most strictly controlled on the planet.

The United Nations (UN) agency ICAO usually requires pilots undergo two proficiency checks every 12 months and perform three takeoffs and landings every 90 days.

They are also subject to examinations from doctors specialising in aviation medicine.

However, it was gathered when the COVID-19 pandemic began, ICAO allowed airlines “flexibility” in meeting these rules because the virus was devastating enough, as long as carriers incorporated other safeguards.

But with flying on its way back, the Montreal-based agency says it is becoming less lenient.

Ian Knowles, a technical officer within ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau, which leads the agency’s response to crises, said: “There’s going to be a point beyond which you can’t stretch standards.

“Standards are there for a reason.”

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