There is plenty of speculation about when airlines around the world will begin to ramp up operations again. No one yet knows when or how the resumption will play out. A major factor will be opening of borders by different nations; some countries in Europe have indicated they may not re-open until September or October, even to traffic from other EU countries. In general, though, domestic markets, especially in China and the US, are expected to gather momentum initially. International travel may come later. Passenger willingness to fly is also an unknown, and will hinge on not only ticket prices but perceived cleanliness of airports and aircraft.

When airlines begin to restart their engines, there will be several challenges, including training.

The majority of airlines’ fleets are parked in what is considered “short-term storage,” many filling up airport gates, taxiways and even runways, with the expectation of returning to service within 3-6 months. It can take as long as a week to get an aircraft “preserved,” removing fluids, installing protective casings, etc., followed by routine maintenance each month: fluid checks, idling engines to charge batteries, checking flight controls, inspecting anti-icing systems, towing with a tractor so tyres don’t get flat spots, making sure birds or insects haven’t built nests in vents.

Cabin crew re-training will also be affected. This is mostly done in house by the airline, but the numbers are large (perhaps 6-8 times as many, compared with pilots). They will need refresher and likely some additional training to cope with the “new normal” sanitary procedures. 

One of the more difficult logistical challenges is getting the flight crew re-qualified. Every airline has in some way furloughed, fired, or put on unpaid leave the crews, with the exception of a cadre of pilots who have been flying repatriation flights, cargo runs, or the very limited schedule of passenger flights.

Once an airline decides on a ramp-up date, and the routes and fleet that are going to be reactivated, the Flight Ops team can get in high planning gear.

EASA, FAA and other national CAA regulations all contain “recency” requirements for pilots. For example, within the past 90 days, a pilot must have performed at least three takeoffs and three landings in the aircraft type(s) for which they have been qualified to fly.

With many flights cancelled from March or April, most pilots will have passed 90 days of inactivity before they are able to fly again. Airlines also require refresher training and an operations proficiency check every six months. Both the takeoff / landing requirement and the ops check can be done in Level D flight simulators.

Fortunately, EASA and other agencies have implemented a four-month “grace period” through August.

That doesn’t mean the checks are waived. It just means that a pilot who would have been required to do the required sim sessions by, say, April, will now have until August to do so – before they can resume flying duties.

Returning pilots to the cockpit is further complicated by social-distancing requirements which effectively shut down simulators for awhile. As sim sessions have resumed, certain rules are in place at some training centres, such as wearing protective masks (but not oxygen masks).

As airlines resume flight schedules, flight ops and sim training will start a delicate dance. The cadre of pilots who have still been flying, and are therefore within recency requirements, are most likely the training captains. They will need to be rotated from flight ops duties to focus on training flight crews who are designated to return to operations. The training captains will be able to devote perhaps 10 weeks to bringing crews back up to speed before they will need to get back in an aircraft cockpit before their own three-month recency expires.

Airlines with their own flight simulators should not have much difficulty with early scheduling if the ramp-up is a slow-roll. The only flight crews allowed to train in the sim will be those returning soon to flight ops. But at a point six months or so into the new schedule, flying crews will be faced with their six-month checkride requirement, and their training will need to be integrated with that of the flight crews who are just returning to ops.

For those airlines or pilots without captive simulators near their base of operations, they may need to travel to a location with a flight simulator for their aircraft type. Even this travel may be complicated by border restrictions, limited flight schedules, and perhaps mandatory quarantine measures on arrival in another country.

About the Authors

Rick Adams is Editor in Chief of CAT magazine.

Jacques Drappier is former Airbus VP Flight Ops and Training and Chair of CAT magazine’s annual Asia Pacific Airline Training Summit (APATS).

Pierre Wannaz is a veteran A330/340 captain for an international airline and a consultant to CEFA Aviation.

Part of CAT Magazine's Restarting The Engines series.