As flights return to the skies after a long break experts recommend extra caution

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Regulators, insurers and experts have advised airlines to take special caution while reactivating planes left in extended storage during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing possible pilot rustiness, maintenance failures and even insect nests that block key sensors.

The unprecedented number of aircraft grounded as coronavirus lockdowns blocked air travel, which at one point reached two-thirds of the global fleet, has created a spike in the number of reported problems as airlines return them to service.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the number of “unstabilized” or poorly handled approaches has increased sharply this year. Such mishaps can lead to difficult landings, overshoots of the runway or even crashes.

Worried by IATA’s data, insurers are questioning airlines about whether they are doing extra pilot training to focus on landings, said Gary Moran, head of Asia aviation at insurance broker Aon. “They want to know about the circumstances of the training,” he said.

Training and experience

Approaches and landings put major demands on the crew, for which training and regular experience are vital.

The highest number of fatal accidents can be traced back to the approach to an airport, according to UK-based aircraft manufacturer Airbus, while the largest number of non-fatal accidents occur during landing.

In May, after an unstabilized approach, a Pakistan International Airlines plane crashed, killing 97 passengers, while 18 died in an Air India Express crash on landing in August, also after an unstabilized approach.

Insect threat

Training is not the only concern. An ‘alarming trend’ in the number of reports of inaccurate airspeed and altitude readings has been documented by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) during the first flight after a plane leaves storage.

In some cases, take-offs had to be abandoned or the aircraft had to return to base. The issue was, in most cases, traced back to undetected insect nests within the pitot tubes of the aircraft, pressure-sensitive sensors that feed key data to an avionics computer.

EASA said last month that issues found after prolonged parking included an engine shutdown in flight after technical problems, fuel system contamination, reduced parking brake pressure and emergency batteries losing their charge. “We’ve got people returning to work who are quite rusty, which is a big issue,” insurer Aon’s Mr. Moran said.

Re-entry training

Airlines have developed training programs for pilots re-entering service ranging from theory refreshers to multiple simulator sessions and supervised in-flight checks, depending on the length of absence.

Australia’s aviation regulator said on November 30 its inspectors would increase surveillance on COVID-19 related risks involving the re-entry into service, pilot training and safety risk management for the remainder of the year through to June 30, 2021.

Pilots also need to make an honest assessment of their skills and confidence upon returning to work, International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations representative Peter Meiresonne said at an industry webinar in October. They may need to turn down offers like shorter landing approaches from air traffic control if they do not feel ready, he said.