Airlines around the world are beginning to ramp up operations again. CAT Editor Rick Adams, FRAeS, outlines some of the considerations for pilots, cabin crew and maintenance technicians and the retraining required for restarting the engines.
Airlines will use this crisis to accelerate deployment of more efficient aircraft, sending some widebodies into early retirement. Maintenance technicians who have been parking thousands of aircraft on airport ramps will need to return them to flying condition, possibly in short order. Cabin crew, taught for years to engage with passengers, will now be limiting such interaction.
There’s been plenty of bad news, of course. Flight schedules reduced by 90% or more. Airline bankruptcies. Furloughs and layoffs. But there’s some encouraging news as well. Some airlines are beginning to add back routes, even open some new ones. New airlines are being launched. Flight training schools are resuming courses.
Nearly everyone has an opinion on how long it will take the airline industry to return to 2019 passenger levels and the growth levels of the past decade. On the assumption that a cure or treatment for Covid-19 is available by Q1 2021, analysts ICF see an average recovery period of four years. Domestic markets, especially in China, the US and Europe, 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.
Re-Qualifying Flight Crews
One of the logistical challenges is getting the flight crew re-qualified. Every airline has in some way furloughed, laid off, 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.
EASA, FAA and other national CAA regulations all contain “recency” requirements for pilots. Within the past 90 days, a pilot must have performed at least three takeoffs and three landings in the aircraft type 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.
Training in the tight quarters of flight simulators has resumed for many airlines - masks required. Image credit: Hainan Airlines.
Returning pilots to the cockpit is further complicated by social-distancing requirements which effectively shut down simulators for a while. 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.
“Most airlines are looking at the most efficient way to train their stranded pilots,” said Captain Pierre Wannaz, a veteran A330/340 pilot and expert consultant for CEFA Aviation flight data animation. *The most frequently seen approach is a form of a matrix, taking into account the length of the interruption and the experience in the function and on the aircraft type.
“The return process will be mainly depending on previous experience,” he explained. “For example, a pilot with a low flight experience on a type, despite a shorter flight interruption, might face a longer training than a very experienced pilot on the same type with a longer flight interruption. Opting for such approach can mitigate the risks on one side, but it will be quite complex in term of planning and will demand a lot of flexibility from the instructors involved.”
“A simulator check is an event that can be very stressful for some pilots,” Wannaz suggested. “The pilot’s licence and the right to operate an aircraft depends on the result of the licence proficiency check. Now, applying the EASA exemption, an interval of up to 10 months instead of six months is possible. The stress level will be much higher. As a result, I expect to see an increase in the number of errors, if not failures, in part of the check items.”
He advised airlines “to put measures in place to mitigate these risks. A solution could be a training session prior to the check. As recommended by IATA, this would be a non-graded session to get some hands-on training.”
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.
Ripple Effect of Widebody Retirements
From Hong Kong to Victorville, there are more than 17,000 aircraft parked at airports and long-term storage facilities – about two-thirds of the world’s airline fleet. Some of these aircraft aren’t expected to return to passenger flight operations.
“Magnificent planes like the B747 and A380 will be disappearing from the skies,” said Jacques Drappier, former Airbus VP Flight Ops and Training and Chair of CAT magazine’s annual Asia Pacific Airline Training Summit (APATS). “Even before the crisis the widebody market was not doing well. With the travel restrictions and weak forecasts for the coming years, it is obvious that the “Big Jumbo” days are over. Many of these parked aircraft will never leave the ground again,” Drappier said.
“For smaller aircraft types, some airlines might scrap older planes and opt to bring in newer fuel-efficient planes,” Drappier said. “However, with the present fuel price being so low, there are good arguments to bring back older planes that are paid for and defer delivery of the newer planes that require capital that the airlines are very short of. So we might see very different fleet decisions depending on capital available, purchase contracts and fuel price.”
Fleet decisions will have direct consequences on flight operations and training. For example, if an airline decides to ground a type such as the B747, Drappier explained: “There are a lot of crews, mostly senior, that need to be retrained to a smaller type, and this starts a cascade of retraining with ultimately furloughs on the bottom of the seniority list.”
Park the Aircraft, Then What?
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.
Parking an aircraft for a month or more can require between 100 man-hours for a small turboprop to as many as 350-400 hours for a widebody. Returning parked aircraft to service can take a bit longer, as many as 650 man-hours for some Boeing 777 variants.
With the expected industry recovery for summer and fall flight schedules, maintenance activity will follow the ramp-up of the flying.
The situation will be especially tricky for MROs. An estimated 3,500 airplanes will not return from the desert, and these are precisely the candidates for the heavy maintenance checks on which MRO business depends. So their activities will lag the increase of flying by some months or even years. The availability of scrapped airplanes as spares donors may also reduce the need for repair or overhaul of some parts, again an activity of the MROs. Some MROs will close, most will need to downsize and encourage older technicians to retire.
Maintenance training organizations and maintenance schools are challenged as well. One quarter of Aviation Technician Education Council schools suspended operation during the pandemic and some of those are considering doing so permanently, according to Crystal Maguire, AETC Executive Director.
But out of the present misery, some good things can also come. Early retirements will create not only openings but a real manpower need. “Given the long lead time for technicians, up to seven years from start to certifying technician, those who are today at the beginning of their training might be the lucky ones that will be ready by the time the industry needs them in 2023 to 2025,” maintenance training consultant Geoff Hill told CAT. Indeed, the British School of Aviation reported an increase in inquiries about enrollment since the pandemic outbreak.
MTX training specialists have also been responding with innovative approaches. Although current regulatory requirements preclude type-ratings without certain hands-on training, some authorities (FAA, EASA, GCAA, CAAC), have accelerated approval of distance learning courses – for which they have historically given little or no or credit.
“At the very beginning of the crisis, it became obvious that we had to quickly adapt and react to offer suitable maintenance training solutions to our customers,” said Christian Delmas, Head of Worldwide Maintenance Training for Airbus. In a short time, the Airbus Services team managed to develop the concept: from the course programmes to NAA approvals.
AETC’s Maguire said online learning has increased dramatically. Before Covid-19, there were only a handful of online programmes; now, 75% of operating schools have online or hybrid learning programmes, some including virtual-, mixed- or augmented-reality.
Flightline Training Services in Canada developed VR Practical Training using a combination of 3D, 360-degree and still photography, as well as remote training. Rolls-Royce is expanding its VR training programmes with distance learning for business aircraft engine repairs, the latest offering an instructor-led course on their BR725 engine.
NLR in The Netherlands developed a HoloLens-based demonstrator for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. “We want to integrate HoloLens throughout the MRO chain and to use it in the everyday performance of maintenance,” says Anneke Nabben, NLR training specialist. “Using augmented reality for every repair could help ensure the correct procedural steps by visually projecting the action that must be performed on the aircraft.”
From Flight Ops to Health Ops
In one of the aviation community’s finest moments, flight attendants who were furloughed from various airlines quickly pivoted and used their emergency medical training to help fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Cabin crew from SAS Scandinavian Airlines underwent specialized training at Sophiahemmet hospital in Stockholm, Sweden as assistant nurses. In the UK, flight attendants for easyJet and Virgin Atlantic volunteered to help with patient care at the ‘Nightingale” field hospitals set up in major cities. About 300 cabin crew in Singapore applied to become “Care Ambassadors,” to inform people on ways to help prevent the spread of infection and to assist patients.
As they return to their airline roles, cabin crew will need refresher and likely some additional training to cope with the “new normal” sanitary procedures.
IATA last month published the third edition of its “Guidance for Cabin Operations During and Post Pandemic.” The comprehensive 35-page document covers the gamut of topics, including a detailed operational safety risk assessment matrix, layered protection from infection, cabin crew training, scheduling and flight duty time limitations, personal protective equipment (PPE), universal precautions kits (UPKs), cabin cleaning, pre-flight checks, physical distancing, cabin waste management, unruly passengers, and onboard first aid.
Anna Mellberg Karlsson, Chief Cabin Safety Instructor for Novair, told CAT, “EASA´s guidelines tells us that we must wear PPE at all times except if we experience an emergency. We need to carry PPE for crew and some additional for passengers although the pax shall bring their own. They should be changed every four hours. Crew at other airlines who already fly with them say it is okay but of course a new and strange situation.”
IATA cabin crew training guidance recommends “alternative training methods such as webinars, distance learning and e-learning” where social distancing is not possible. Also, “any cabin crew training equipment used in practical demonstrations of procedures should be effectively sanitised between each use. This includes portable breathing equipment, oxygen masks, life vest mouthpieces and any other item which is used near the face of the delegate.”
Karlsson noted: “You don’t just let 15 crew use the same smoke hood as we used to. We don’t practice ventilations in CPR. Door trainers should be disinfected after each crew member, and so forth.”
What About Young People in Flight Training?
Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer: they were all predicting a need for the next 20 years of 600,000 or more pilots. Buoyed by such positive forecasts, thousands of young people started their education, most at their own expense, to become an airline pilot.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shattered these forecasts and with it many youngsters’ dreams. But wait a moment before you assume the dream is gone forever. Consider, for example, the US domestic market, which is expected to rebound more quickly than some other markets. There were about 4,100 senior pilots expected to be required to retire each year over the next 20 years from the four major carriers. That’s more than 80,000 retirements, many of whom may leave sooner. If 10-20% of remaining pilots are furloughed (10,000 to 20,000 out of about 100,000), that still leaves a gap of 60-70,000 pilot seats when the industry recovers to present levels.
With the current FAA requirement of 1,500 hours of flight experience, new university and flight school graduates typically become instructors to build the necessary hours to be hire-eligible. The process can take several years … roughly similar to the time it will take the airline industry to fully recover.
Aviation consultant Kit Darby believes, “The need for pilots will return well before the full market recovery.” He encourages young pilot aspirants to be patient, build their hours and variety of experiences, and “be first in line” when hiring of new pilots resumes. “If you can get your training and build the experience you need during a down period, that's an excellent time to do it. The pilots with the most experience will be on the top of the pile when hiring returns.”
Contrary to the assumption that flight training is dormant, we’re seeing many schools restarting and adapting to the challenge. By mid-June, about two dozen university flight programs had already resumed training after an initial hiatus. More are expecting to again offer instruction in the near future. BAA in Lithuania has resumed in-aircraft flight training. Qantas and FTA proceeded with launching a new ab initio flight school in Queensland. Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre in Ontario, Canada was anticipating FTD and aircraft instruction in June.
For those contemplating a career in aviation, the timing is not as bad as it may have first seemed. For those starting a 3- to 4-year journey to become an airline pilot, things could be looking pretty good by the time they are ready.
Darby predicts: “The pilot shortage will return as soon as the market recovers.”
Editors Note: This article was adapted from a series of articles which have appeared recently on the Civil Aviation pages of the Halldale.com website. To read the full-length articles on each topic click here.
Additional material was drawn from our webinar, #Restarting the Engines: Pilots, Recent and Requalifying, which is available to view here.
Jacques Drappier, Pierre Wannaz and Anna Mellberg Karlsson contributed to this article.