The effect of COVID-19 on Aircraft Storage, Pilot Training & Aviation Safety

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COVID-19, better known as the coronavirus, has been sweeping across the globe, massively affecting every aspect of life and bringing about unprecedented challenges. The aviation industry has not been immune to the onslaught of issues, especially in the Asian region. In fact, they were hit the hardest economically. Many airlines are scaling back operations, furloughing employees, parking airplanes, and retiring some of their fleets ahead of schedule.

COVID-19 is a novel flu-type virus that causes pneumonia in some cases. The coronavirus has made many nations limit travel or ban international travel altogether in an effort to slow down and contain the spread of the virus. This has forced Asian airlines to change their short and long-term plans. Many Asian airlines have had to downsize their operations vastly. For other airlines with a strong balance sheet and huge fleet numbers, they have stayed in business with few flights in operation while having to place many of their aircrafts in storage. A parked airplane does not generate any revenue. In fact, a parked airplane causes an airline to incur costs because the airplane still has to be maintained for airworthiness. 

When aircrafts are stored for long periods of time there are some safety implications, especially for the pilots. Many pilots have not flown for months as a result of the pandemic. The aircrafts that airline pilots fly are complex, high-performance equipment and require extensive training to operate. When pilots in airline operations do not fly for extended periods of time, they will usually require recurrent training. Recurrent training is a form of scheduled refresher training that pilots must go through on a regular basis. It is important for airlines to ensure that pilots have completed the required training before returning to scheduled flight operations. Just like any other highly developed skillset, when it is not used for extended periods, proficiency is lost. In the commercial airline industry, this loss of a pilot’s proficiency is detrimental to safety of the airline and its passengers.

Every six months, airline pilots are required to take a proficiency check – an assessment of skills and knowledge in their particular area of operation. Assessments are mostly carried out in a Level D flight simulator. These offer realistic training scenarios with everything from the flight controls, sounds, and movements designed to re-create operations on a flight deck. A variety of challenges can be thrown at the pilots to determine how they deal with emergencies and ensure that all flight procedures are adhered to strictly.

It would be clear to most that prolonged periods of not flying could lead to potential safety issues. Small examples of links between pilot errors and the pandemic have been seen. Pilots and airline management should be well aware of how important proper training is in a time like this.

In NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System July 2020 issue of its Callback publication, it was said that “COVID-19 continues to impact the aviation world with a multitude of threats and challenges. Many have not been previously observed in aviation. While maintaining proficiency is a constant challenge, the lack thereof is a foe that aircrews have battled since the birth of the airplane and is currently revealing itself as a novel concern.” Hopefully, airline pilots will not use the pandemic as an excuse for poor piloting or not taking their training seriously. 

Aircrafts in storage also presents potential maintenance complications that could affect safety. The pandemic has made airlines globally place many of their aircrafts into long-term storage. This in itself is a costly process. Eventually when demand returns, these aircraft will have to be made operational again. Bringing an aircraft out of storage is a tedious process. Procedures to make an aircraft operational must be meticulously followed. Sometimes, during inspection to bring an aircraft out of storage issues may arise. If more aircraft have to be placed in storage and demand falls again from a resurgence in COVID-19 cases airlines will possibly have to face more maintenance issues. Multiple inspections are required on a monthly basis for commercial aircraft to be deemed airworthy. 

In the U.S., for example, the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive for inspections on the Boeing 737 Classic and Next Generation aircraft, an aircraft that is used in many Asian airline fleets. A unique issue arose with a check valve that could cause an engine to fail inflight without the ability to restart. Inspections will have to be done which would affect over 1,900 Boeing 737 aircrafts. Most of these 737s were in storage or were recently brought back to operational status. Although Boeing has provided support to these aircraft operators this example shows the safety implications that arise from aircraft storage.

On the other hand, the pandemic gives some airlines the opportunity to retire older aircraft and bring new aircraft into service. Airlines with larger fleets tend to have older aircraft. Current events are forcing some operators to consider retiring these aircraft sooner than originally intended. This opens the door for unique methods of utilizing an old airframe. Instead of simply selling a retired airplane or parking it in a storage facility, it can be recycled. An aircraft can be dismantled with the valuable parts harvested and sent back to the owner or sold to dealers in the MRO industry. The other materials can be recycled and used again in other products. Such solutions can actually be a financial blessing for some operators. There are special companies that provide these types of services that makes fleet management easier and more financially viable when retiring aircraft. 

Airlines in the Asian region will have to continuously adjust to the industry post-COVID-19. Safely managing a slow return of demand is the top priority, however long-term planning should still be considered. Some pilots will not be recalled this year even though there is still projected to be a pilot shortage with most of the demand for pilots being in Asia. Airlines will still have to make considerations for where the next generation of pilots will come from. Furthermore, with older aircraft being retired and some coming out of storage, airlines are trying to refinance and delay new aircraft deliveries to accommodate their ever-shifting business plans and balance sheet. 

The data presented in the graph below shows us how the largest market in Asia – China, has been affected domestically and how this compares to 2019 levels. China’s domestic travel market was at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, meaning that it was one of the first to be hit and was hit the hardest. Fortunately, the data currently shows a positive trend. 

Chart Above: China’s weekly domestic seats up to mid-August, 2020.

Figure taken from CAPA

Just like in the U.S., to an extent, many Asian governments are providing assistance, thus essentially becoming the only beacon of hope for some airlines. Even though there are promising signs of growth returning, the long-lasting effects on the Asian airline industry have yet to come. The business implications of bringing aircraft out of storage and retraining pilots are massive. However, in an industry such as aviation, placing safety at the forefront will always be the most important priority.

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