The COVID-19 outbreak has affected business operations in all industries. As the global threat intensifies, entities that were not part of the typical mainstream industries had to halt their activities. Flight schools or pilot training institutes were not an exception to the circumstances. This article sheds light on how the pandemic has disturbed this branch of aviation and how it is coping with the unexpected challenges during these unprecedented times.
Like many other educational institutes all over the world, flight schools were also ordered to seize training and schooling. While the initial few weeks seemed like a holiday, where students and instructors enjoyed spending time at home, reality soon hit as the pandemic dragged on. Things had to change, as the school management and students were unsure on how long it will take for the lockdown to end until they could resume training like before. As time passed, the authorities decided to change the training model from on-campus learning to online learning. This was the most viable method for both students and instructors, whereby future pilots could still learn the basics of flight without putting their training on hold.
The major hindrances reported by students and instructors in the online training model introduced by flight training academies are:
- Understanding and familiarization of lecture modules,
- Scheduling conflicts due to students living in different time zones,
- Problems in live sessions due to poor or weak internet connection,
- High absenteeism and
- Lack of motivation
The Flight School Association of North America (FSANA) conducted a survey in June 2020 to ask Flight Training Schools about the impacts of Covid-19 on their businesses. The responses portray a true picture of how the pilot training institutes are struggling to stay in the market. When asked about “Did your flight school close due to COVID-19?”, 49.6% of total participants said they never closed, 35% said they closed, while 12.7% indicated that they limited their operations to only solo/rental flying.
During this dire period where the coronavirus has hampered the aviation industry, it is getting challenging for flight training schools to sustain itself. Aviation schools need constant funding to maintain standardized training for future pilots. From inducting the latest aircraft into the fleet to hiring competent flight instructors, it takes thousands of dollars to keep the schools going. A traditional source of capital is the fees collected from students who have enrolled for pilot training. However, there is a very small number of students left who are still registered with flying schools. The reason being, many students have left for their hometowns or countries during the lockdown for health and safety reasons.
Responding to the survey question “Did you lose any customers?”, 102 out of 157 (64.9%) respondents indicated that they thought they had lost their customers permanently, 41 (26.1%) answered No, while 14 (8.9%) indicated No Response. The survey also included a question “Do you believe you lost revenue as a result of COVID-19”? 78.9% of participants answered Yes, 7.6% answered No, while 13.3% indicated No Response.
The whole world is observing various degrees of lockdown with some embassies closed or functioning only for critical tasks. No interviews at the embassies mean no visa processing and no opportunities for new students to start their learning journey in a new country. The local students are also not very much willing to continue their pilot training due to financial reasons. As most of the cadets are sponsored by their parents and guardians, a large number of households are unable to bear the expenses due to the economic crisis.
Security charges, local CAA fee, and parking charges are some of the expenses which have to be paid regardless if the flight schools are operational. To cope with the unpleasant situation, some flying schools took bold and harsh steps such as firing or laying off contractual and extra staff from their workforce. According to the survey, 53.5% of schools applied for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to continue giving salaries to their employees. The survey asked its contestants about the Estimated Loss of Revenue. The results reflected that 28.6% claimed a loss under $50,000, 24.2% claimed a loss about $50,000 – $100,000, 8.2% consider a loss ranging between $100,000 – $250,000, while 11.4% estimated a loss of more than $250,000.
The flight training institutes which are operational and providing services for training, charter, and rescue missions are spending a great amount of money from their budget on sanitization and antibacterial cleaning. This is proving to be an additional expenditure to the flight training schools as the FAA and EASA have instructed the schools to regularly sanitize the classrooms, aircraft, and school premises. For this purpose, sanitizing walkthrough gates are installed at facility entrances and all the potentially virus prevailing places and objects are cleaned and sprayed with approved chemicals. Apart from sanitization, school staff and students are also being tested for COVID as a precautionary measure to limit the spread of the virus. Again, this is also increasing the operating costs of the flight schools. According to the survey, 33.1% of pilot training schools have made it mandatory for instructors and students to wear face masks all the time during their stay at the flight academy. Moreover, students must provide their own headsets and maintain a safe distance of at least six feet.
Keeping in view the lockdown state and the associated problems, many regulatory bodies around the world are more lenient to pilots, ground instructors, flight schools, and other aviation personnel with regards to the licensing process and regulation. Upon receiving several requests from flight schools and industry groups, the United States’ Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued the Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 118 (Relief for Certain Persons and Operations during the Coronavirus Disease 2019) which provides short term extensions to certain training and proficiency requirements, medical certifications and other mandates. Similarly, the UK Civil Aviation Authority issued Exemption Number “E 5123” that entails the extension of the validity period for Licenses, Ratings and Certificates of Aircrew, Instructors, Examiners, Aircraft Maintenance License Holders, and Air Traffic Controllers.
To facilitate the downtrend in the industry, governments across the globe must step-in to play their part in order to give pilot training schools a helping hand. According to Boeing, despite the temporary oversupply of qualified cockpit crew, the long term need remains robust. As thousands of pilots retire in the next decade, there should be qualified pilots available to fill those positions. Without producing qualified pilots, no country in the world can meet the future demand. As the world comes out of the downturn, an ample supply of competent personnel remains critical to maintaining the health, safety, and advancement of the aviation ecosystem.