Restarting the airline industry is fraught with complexities ranging from safety, human factors, operational and logistical planning, finance, economics, travel demand, political and social aspects. Naveed Kapadia, Founder and Director of aviation business and management consultancy INQUISITIF, examines the challenge of extended absence from the cockpit.

As recovery starts to take hold, flight crews across the globe will be expected to go back to performing at required standards. The question of ‘skill fade’ then becomes a concern.

Skill fade may be described as the decay of ability or adeptness over a period of non-use. Some of the well-documented factors that may have an impact on skill fade include retention interval, training methodology, conditions of retrieval, experience, aptitude, motivation and individual ability among others. Despite the fact that pilots may be subject to proficiency checks and meet the required parameters for currency and recency, it does not highlight areas of deficiency in every case. Unless the hard-earned flying skills are regularly exercised, the process can become less familiar with the passage of time. Hence, in the context of pandemic-related lack of skill utilisation, it is important to recognise that critical pilot skills and knowledge can erode.

From an airline’s perspective, professional pilots are provided with appropriate online training tools as well as simulator times to re-establish their skills and qualifications as part of the risk mitigation and as airlines prepare to fly again. It must also be pointed out that usually airliners have a crew of two extremely competent and qualified professional pilots in the flight deck to help, support and keep a watchful eye on each other’s performance. However, there is little known about the impact that this hiatus due to the pandemic may have on the flight crew’s competence, performance and skills.

Past Research on Skills Retention

There are numerous studies conducted to understand the effect of time out on skills and competence which may be relevant. Understanding the impact is of primary importance for the commercial aviation industry including professional employees, employers and regulatory bodies to find ways to mitigate risks via training and other means.

The study conducted by Ebbatson et al (2009, UK) found a mixed picture of skills retention, with different skills following different patterns of decline when they measured retention of flying skills after a break in 66 pilots.

Military research on skills retention concluded that long periods of non-use do lead to skills fade and that skills fade differs according to the individual, the context and the type of task. (Perez et al, 2013; Arthur et al, 1998, Wisher et al, 1995; Goodwin, 2006; Leonard and Martin, 2007; Sanders, 2001).

Hoffmann and Feltovich (2010) concluded that the best predictor of skill retention after a time out is level of performance prior to the gap and that high performance is linked to practice, self-assessment and self-directed learning.

Stothard and Nicholson summarised the factors affecting retention to be the task, the training, the retention interval and the individual.

It is therefore reasonable to conclude that ‘skill fade’ is a complex phenomenon. It is influenced by a range of factors. These skills may decline at different rates for different people in different settings. There is evidence that skills decline according to a curve, with the greatest decline being during the first few months, and subsequent decline being at a much slower rate. Individual factors that may affect retention of skills are level of competence before the interval, the aptitude of the individual and level of motivation.

Normalisation of Deviance

Professor Diane Vaughan describes the term “normalisation of deviance” as the process in which deviance from correct or proper behaviour becomes normalised. Furthermore, Vaughan defines this as a process where a clearly unsafe practice comes to be considered normal if it does not immediately cause a catastrophe. At its very simplest form, a pilot definition may be described as accepting the departure from standard operating procedures (SOPs) to fulfil the task at hand with no immediate consequences. Given the context of furlough and reported incidents and errors across the global aviation system, are we susceptible to ‘normalisation of deviance?’ What steps can we take to guarantee several layers of defence and to avoid a potential unsafe event?

The NASA-run Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) has been capturing errors reported by flight crew anonymously for analysis and improvements of flight safety. Although the errors are not exclusively related to pandemic-related skill fade, there are increasing numbers of events reported globally that could be attributed to lack of flying and practice during recent months. Some of the examples include:

1. B787 flight crew reported a high-speed Rejected Take-Off (RTO). The Captain (Pilot Monitoring) felt yaw to the right during a normal take-off and initiated a RTO without announcing the ‘Reject’. The First Officer, who was the Pilot Flying (PF), did not recall sensing any such conditions that warranted an RTO. Another flight crew in the jump seat prompted various crucial actions while both the PM and PF grappled with the event and the confusion that ensued.

2. A B777-200 flight crew reported an altitude deviation during cruise. A reflection from the flight crew attributed the errors in altitude change to being a little “rusty” and being a “bit off the game” with the reduced flying.

3. Flight crew reported descending below the charted altitude while on the Standard Terminal Arrival Route (STAR), which they attributed to a late runway change and similar procedures. A noteworthy point here is that the PM was on his first flight in nearly 15 weeks.

4. A flight crew reported they had a flap problem but continued to their destination, then later discovered they were not in compliance with the Minimum Equipment List (MEL).

5. Dispatcher reported a flight was dispatched over foreign airspace without the proper approval and had to divert.

6. Air carrier pilot reported last-minute route clearances task saturation that resulted in an unstable approach.

7. A pilot reported a departure with the wrong take-off thrust programmed.

8. B767 technician reported discovering fuel lines on an engine were loose and caused an inflight shutdown and return to departure airport. The air carrier flight crew reported deviating from clearance on departure.

9. A320 First Officer reported an unstabilised approach that resulted in a go-around.

10. A flight crew reported momentarily descending below required altitude while programming the Flight Management Computer (FMC) for a change from RNAV to ILS approach due to input error and a lapse in situational awareness.

IATA analysis has similarly highlighted data showing a number of unstabilised approaches for passenger aircraft being used as cargo flights since the pandemic began in 2020. Additionally, following extended periods of storage, EASA has reported a significant increase in unreliable speed and altitude indications during initial flights resulting in Rejected Take-Off (RTO) and In-Flight Turn Back (IFTB) events.

Maintenance organisations have been alerted by EASA to look into contaminated air data systems within pitot/static systems. The IATA Accident Database (ADX) highlights the risk of Loss of Control Inflight (LOC-I) as a high-risk outcome where unreliable airspeed has been identified as a causal factor in aviation accidents. Since maintenance is based on the number of hours flown in the 12-month period and flying cycle, planning is extremely complex, and the added pressure of expedited recovery may result in slips, errors and mistakes. Against the backdrop of Boeing 737 MAX and MCAS-related findings, regulators are naturally very keen to minimise the occurrence of such events to ever take place. EASA has encouraged vigilance on ‘all technical and human factors affecting flight safety’ in acknowledgement of pandemic-related challenges.

Where Do We Go from Here?

We have to accept that notwithstanding the pandemic, there are errors and mistakes in any system, but it is about what we do to manage those errors that is even more important now.

Adam Sweidan explains the term ‘Black Elephant’ as a cross between “a black swan” as an unlikely, unexpected event with enormous ramifications and the “elephant in the room” as a “looming disaster that is visible to everyone, yet no one wants to address." We must not be impervious to the ‘Black Elephant’ events.

We have never suffered the consequences of a pandemic at a level that we are experiencing now and therefore do not yet have very specific insights or research that may help us get answers. There still remains a sizeable chunk of aviation-related workforce on furlough and we do not yet know the answer to how this may have impacted every individual.

As the airline industry restarts, new challenges are likely to crop up. It is not just about getting the aircraft operationally ready but also about ensuring that the entire ecosystem, including pilots, cabin crews, air traffic controllers, ground and maintenance crews, air traffic controllers and many more, are brought back into a state of readiness in a most expedient but safe manner.

Organisations such as Flight Safety Foundation, IATA and ICAO have issued guidelines to highlight human factors-related topics and Health and Safety checklists to facilitate global coordination, compliance and enhanced readiness. Furthermore, IATA has issued ‘Guidance for Monitoring Crew Fatigue During a Crisis’ with detailed recommendations in collaboration with ICAO. The EASA ‘Wellbeing Resource Hub’ is a source of information and resources relating to wellbeing. Such resources can play a critical role in this recovery and restart phase.

Regulators will need to look at adopting a risk-based approach that will need to be agile and relevant to the threats being faced by the wider aviation industry. Organisations will also need to play their part in ensuring that the safety management system is competent and compliant to international safety standards.

‘Safety’ remains the uncompromising priority. Industry organisations and regulators are urged to improve cooperation, collaboration and communication to ensure effective planning. The need for a cohesive plan with global coordination cannot be underestimated.

We have to remain open minded to a possibility of normalisation of deviance that might trigger ‘Black Elephant’ events and proactively look at risk mitigations by having the courage to self-assess our contribution and responsibility toward a safe return to sky.