Media report on pilots’ diminished skills due to COVID absence
Fail to mention that AWARENESS is key to addressing risk
FAA Duty to Report Fit, Safety Briefings, NASA ASRS Callbacks and IATA guidance
The worldwide press and other media have headlines which emphasize that the pandemic has impacted aviation safety because the cockpit crews’ skills have deteriorated during their absence from work. It is irrefutable that the manual and mental skills needed to operate a plane suffer from extended layoffs. There is, however, more to this story which most of the journalists ignored.
First and foremost, the most basic safety regulation places a heavy duty on the pilots and the airline to ONLY allow fit professionals to report for duty, as the FARs mandate—
The next important safety screen is that pilots must meet extensive initial and recurrent training standards. Although the imposition of these periodic assessments was exempted in SFAR-118 and 118-2, the FAA is terminating them gradually with the training rules having been reimposed on March 31, 2021.
The most insidious safety risk is NOT BEING AWARE of a problem. The Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) was created to identify issues and then make all awareness such “hidden” faults. ASRS does something that the reporters noted but failed to explain the significance of the disclosures. NASA, the keeper of this incredibly useful and powerful data base, flagged the deterioration in its closely watched “CALLBACK”—
As usual the two issues made it clear to the flying community that they need to be conscious of their fitness BEFORE taking assigned duty time.
One more layer of safety information came from the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), which is the world’s airlines trade group.
COVID-19 posed risks to aviation. The world’s regulatory agencies uniformly worked to balance the public health dangers with operational rules which would permit important commerce during this period. This policy decision must have included the expectation that the grounded pilots would lose some degree of their cockpit competence. As the pandemic reduced, this potential risk was flagged by the NASA/ASRS, the FAA and IATA communications. Awareness of the insidious risk was the most efficacious method to diminish this threat to aviation safety.
Out-of-practice pilots returning from Covid layoffs are making ‘disastrous mistakes’ including forgetting to start second engine, not lowering wheels when landing and heading in the wrong direction, US air safety report finds
PUBLISHED: 13:09 EDT, 15 October 2021 | UPDATED: 13:13 EDT, 15 October 2021
Out-of-practice pilots have admitted to making more than 100 potentially disastrously mistakes this past year after returning from COVID-related layoffs.
In confidential reports filed to the US Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), one pilot said he forgot to start his plane’s second engine for take off in December, which could have caused a disaster if he had not aborted the flight.
Another pilot, who had just returned from a seven-month layoff due to the pandemic, reported that he had not lowered the plane’s wheels when landing and managed to pull out just 800 feet from the tarmac.
And a captain who was back for the first time in six months reported that he headed off in the wrong direction during take off, Bloomberg reports.
While the ASRS only reported two incidents attributed to ‘a lack of flying’ in 2019 and none in 2018, the pandemic brought about 128 such incidents from March 2020 to June 2021, according to the most recent data available.
Oliver Wyman, a US-based business consulting firm, warned that the problem was worldwide as pandemic cuts left about 100,000 pilots working skeleton hours or on long-term leave.
In Europe, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency released a report in August on ‘knowledge degradation due to lack of recent practice,’ warning airlines that flights have not been taking place at a pace ‘required to keep all aviation professionals current.‘
The agency warned that out-of-practice pilots could make simple mistakes that snowball into dangerous situations due to a lack of focus and proficiency decay, which has grown due to the pandemic.
It urged airlines and travel organizations to study the impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of pilots and flight staff who suffered from ‘job uncertainty, financial strain, work-life unbalance, and COVID-19 exposure concerns.’
The pilot who tried to take off with one engine told the ASRS that his recovery from a COVID infection was ‘heavy on my mind’ and contributed to his ‘lack of focus.’
European Union Aviation Safety Agency warned fellow safety agencies and airlines that pilots could suffer from skill degradation due to lack of flying after COVID layoffs
A senior pilot for Qantas Airways, an Australian-based airline, said colleagues who have not flown in six months typically make one or two minor procedural mistakes when they return.
Actions that were once “immediate and instinctive” now require more time and thought, And that’s only after refresher sessions in a flight simulator, the pilot told Bloomberg under the condition of anonymity.
‘It’s really a critical situation,’ Uwe Hartner, executive vice president for technical and safety standards at the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations. told Bloomberg.
‘The last thing the industry needs now is a bad accident.’
Hartner, who has not flown since February 2020, warned that while some airlines are providing pilots with training to make up for the loss flight time, others are only offering ‘the bare minimum,’ if anything at all.
‘The regulations that we have aren’t sufficient.’
The FAA said in a statement that its ‘comprehensive data-driven safety oversight system enables the agency to detect risks and address problems early, including any that may result from pilots returning to work after Covid-related furloughs.’
American Airlines and Delta Airlines, two of the biggest carriers in the US, have said their pilots training ‘exceeds regulatory requirements.’
Flight Safety Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Hassan Shahidi, who advises the aviation industry through the nonprofit, noted that airlines monitoring the troubling trend globally.
‘The more we know about potential safety issues, the better we are able to mitigate the risk.’
A study from the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, found that the global incidents related to ‘lack of proficiency’ would likely end up being higher in 2020 and 2021.
The university’s report saw that the number of these incidents world wide was on a downward trend since 2015 at around 30 reports, but it was more than double that by 2019. Researches predict the numbers to be much high once all the data comes in for 2020.
Researchers at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona expect the number of global accidents to jump up once the data for 2020 comes in
Rajee Olagnathan, an assistant professor at the university, has studied the ASRS’s data and said airlines needed to step up how they’re addressing this issue.
She said that of nearly a 10 of the 83 incidents reported between March and November 2020 all referred to pilots who had trouble landing the aircraft.
In one of the reports, the pilot admits, ‘I wasn’t at the comfort level I would have liked.‘ Olagnathan said she wanted to see new education programs built around skill deterioration, and noted that pilots needed to be honest about their abilities.
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