SYDNEY: Regulators, insurers and experts warn airlines to take special care when reactivating aircraft that have been left in long-term storage during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The unprecedented number of aircraft on the ground due to coronavirus lockdowns blocking air traffic – at a time that reached two-thirds of the world’s fleet – has increased the number of reported problems as airlines put them back into service put.
The number of “unstable” or poorly treated approaches has risen sharply this year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Such mishaps can lead to hard landings, runway overshoots, or even crashes.
Given the IATA data, insurers are asking airlines whether they are doing additional pilot training to focus on landings, said Gary Moran, director of Asian aviation at insurance broker Aon PLC.
“They want to know about the circumstances of the training,” he said.
Approaches and landings place considerable demands on the crew, for whom training and regular experience are crucial.
According to the aircraft manufacturer Airbus SE, the largest category of fatal accidents can be traced back to approaching an airport, while most non-fatal accidents occur during landing.
In May, a Pakistan International Airlines jet crashed after an unstabilized approach, killing 97 people. 18 died in an Air India Express crash on landing in August, also after an unstabilized approach.
INSECTS IN PIPES
Exercise isn’t the only problem.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has reported an “alarming trend” in the number of reports of unreliable airspeed and altitude readings during the first flight after leaving a camp.
In some cases, takeoffs had to be canceled or the aircraft had to return to base.
In most cases, the problem has been traced back to undiscovered insect nests in the aircraft’s pitot tubes, pressure-sensitive sensors that relay key data to an avionics computer.
In June, a Wizz Air Holdings PLC jet halted takeoff after the captain found the airspeed to be zero.
The aircraft’s investigation revealed insect larvae in one of the pitot tubes, with the aircraft parked for 12 weeks prior to the flight, the UK’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Department said last month. There were no passengers on board.
Insects blocking a pitot tube contributed to the crash of a chartered Birgenair plane in the Dominican Republic in 1996, killing all 189 people on board.
Kate Seaton, a Singapore-based aerospace partner with law firm HFW, said flight crews need to be aware of potential deficiencies that may not have been properly identified when aircraft are returned to service after an unprecedented grounding.
“We’re breaking new ground – the industry needs to take action to mitigate the risks but be prepared for the unexpected,” she said.
EASA said last month that problems identified after prolonged parking included an in-flight engine shutdown after technical issues, fuel system contamination, reduced parking brake pressure, and loss of emergency batteries.
“We have people who come back to work and are pretty rusty, which is a big problem,” said Aon’s insurer Moran.
The airlines have developed training programs for pilots returning to service. These range from theoretical refresher courses to multiple simulator sessions and monitored controls during the flight, depending on the length of the absence.
The Australian Aviation Authority announced on November 30 that its inspectors would step up monitoring of COVID-19 risks related to recommissioning, pilot training and safety risk management for the remainder of the year through June 30, 2021.
Pilots must also make an honest assessment of their skills and confidence upon their return to work, said Peter Meiresonne, representative of the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, at an industry webinar in October. They may have to turn down offers like shorter approaches from air traffic control if they don’t feel ready, he said.
“Perhaps now is a good time to say, ‘We are unable today,’ or ‘Give us a six or ten mile schedule instead of a four mile schedule,’ which you may accept if you are more competent and (flying experience is) younger, “he said.