There are many challenges, of course. On the personnel side, various licenses had to be extended as there was no practical way to re-certify and solutions had to be found that kept skills updated during reduced operations.
There were numerous issues regarding aircraft too. At one point, it is estimated that some 15,000 were parked—the majority of the world’s fleet. “That had never been seen before and we had to work out how they could be maintained and then returned to service in a safe but efficient manner,” says Gilberto Lopez Meyer, IATA’s Senior Vice President, Safety and Flight Operations.
Other safety issues were not so obvious. The lack of demand caused by global travel restrictions often meant low load factors for those aircraft that did manage to take to the skies. As a consequence, these aircraft were much lighter than usual and exhibited different flight characteristics. Additionally, with reduced air traffic levels, aircraft were often being given direct approaches by air traffic controllers, providing crew with less time to configure the aircraft for approach and landing.
IATA was quick to identify a rise in unstable approaches through its Flight Data eXchange global database of deidentified flight data and issued a safety notice. By the end of the year, data showed that the number of unstabilized approaches for passenger aircraft in 2020 were back in line with prior years.
Airlines also had to be aware of crew fatigue. The massive changes to schedule—often at short notice—coupled with unyielding quarantine requirements inevitably affected working patterns. On long-haul flights it was often necessary to carry deadheading crew that would operate the return flight, causing headaches for crew schedulers.
Non-roster related fatigue considerations also had to be factored into equations. Living circumstances changed for many, including the home schooling of children, gym closures, and loss of income. This potentially affected crews’ physical and mental fitness.
The IATA Guidance for Managing Crew Fatigue During a Crisis has detailed recommendations, and a Q&A section resulting from the webinars conducted in collaboration with ICAO.
Even IATA’s Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) had to adapt to coronavirus realities. The IOSA Oversight Council and its task forces, made up of more than 100 airline experts and such interested authorities as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), soon agreed on a support program.
Measures are tightly controlled but include registration extension. A reduced scope remote audit is also possible though the registration lasts for just 12 months rather than the usual two years. Airlines must also complete a questionnaire every 60 days and with a carrier’s approval its answers can be shared with partner airlines and authorities.
“Because IOSA is the industry standard, we actually had auditors in about 40 countries,” says Lopez Meyer. “That meant they could carry out their job without travelling. And, of course, it was possible to make occasional journeys when restrictions eased at certain points during the year.”
Preparing for the restart
As travel grows during 2021, new challenges will arise. It is not only about getting aircraft ready to fly but also bringing back pilots, air traffic controllers, ground crew, cabin crew, and countless others. Many will not have worked at all or only intermittently in the past 12 months, but all must be fully compliant with safety standards from day one.
To assist, IATA has set guidelines for competency-based training, which focuses on ability rather than prescriptive requirements. The incremental nature of the training means it can be set to individual requirements and so facilitate the speediest return to the industry.
Meanwhile, maintenance will be a complex undertaking. Lopez Meyer explains: “Maintenance is based on the number of flying hours, flying cycles or calendar time, but the uncertain nature of travel demand and potential inactivity makes it very difficult to plan correctly.”
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has reported a significant increase in unreliable speed and altitude indications during the first flights following an aircraft leaving storage. This has led to a number of Rejected Take-Off (RTO) and In-Flight Turn Back (IFTB) events. Contaminated air data systems have been blamed, often due to the accumulation of foreign objects, such as insect nests, in pitot/static systems. Maintenance organizations have been alerted by EASA.
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.
Another area that will be scrutinized regularly is aircraft sanitization. Harmonized solutions will be key to restoring consumer confidence and demand. But the impact on aircraft operations and safety must be considered carefully. Of course, aircraft were cleaned previously, but disinfecting them 6–7 times a day is a requirement on a totally different level.
The chemicals used need to be monitored. Typically, there is a high alcohol content that could cause damage to parts and certainly necessitates better ventilation. Cleaners need to be trained in using the disinfection materials and onboard crew have to be protected.
IATA has released Cleaning and Disinfection guidelines and airlines can also follow a Health Safety Checklist to ensure readiness.
Generally speaking, Lopez Meyer says regulatory authorities have been quick to respond to the challenges highlighted by IATA and he anticipates continued cooperation in the year ahead.
Likewise, industry partners have collaborated as never before, and IATA has been instrumental in coordinating action. The ever-changing landscape means combined efforts will remain instrumental to restarting the industry. Airports and airspace have been closed, for example, making flight plans complicated. Alternate airports are always required but with many secondary facilities shut, fulfilling this obligation has been difficult.
IATA’s Liaison Desks at the FAA, Eurocontrol, and in China’s Air Traffic Management Bureau have been important tools in facilitating this work and keeping safety paramount in everybody’s thoughts.
“The crisis has reaffirmed our call for a risk-based approach to safety rather than regulatory burdens,” Lopez Meyer concludes. “It has also highlighted plenty of opportunities for improvement and we stand ready to quickly implement anything that raises safety levels.”