Aviation has never seen anything like it. In mid-April 2021, close to 9,500 aircraft were still parked, about 34% of the global fleet. While this is down from the 14,000-peak of a year ago, it is a staggering figure.
Getting those aircraft back in the air doesn’t only depend on demand. Safely restarting the industry comes with many challenges.
“The main issue is the unpredictability,” says Carlos Cirilo, IATA’s Director, ATM Infrastructure. “We just don’t know when we will start flying internationally or how long it will take to fully recover.”
Some countries have provided some clarity through restart roadmaps. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are at least proposed dates for the resumption of international travel even if there is no guarantee that it will occur. But other nations, such as Canada, have yet to give any indication when borders will reopen.
This is extremely problematic given that the lead-in times of the main stakeholders are not only lengthy but also vary considerably.
For airlines, some of the biggest concerns around restart involve airline maintenance and pilot certification issues. Fortunately, most aircraft are parked in areas that allow airlines access. That’s important because even aircraft that have been parked require regular maintenance and service. Tyres can develop flat spots, for example that could lead to blowouts if they sit in the same spot too long. And returning a parked aircraft to service also involves extensive, critical checks, such as ensuring pitot tubes are clear of debris.
Spare parts are increasingly a problem, from manufacturing them to distributing them to where they are needed. Like so many other areas of aviation, these activities have been severely disrupted by limited resources during the pandemic. And having the qualified personnel necessary to make repairs or provide maintenance has been equally tricky. Many staff have had to be laid off or are furloughed. If the industry opens up quickly, a shortage of human resources in maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) could prove to be a bottleneck.
And even once an aircraft is ready to fly, getting it into position to do so won’t be easy. The parking areas are full and the queue for the exit could be long. A rapid return of parked aircraft will create some interesting logistical conundrums.
Pilot certification is perhaps a more critical factor. In the early stages of the pandemic, license extensions were an obvious solution but as the pandemic continued, this became unsatisfactory from a safety viewpoint. Moreover, as international traffic shut down, ever more pilots were furloughed.
Cirilo points that although all pilots still flying have up to date certification, that isn’t the case of those who were furloughed and who have not been in an aircraft or a simulator for several months. And providing them with the necessary refresher courses won’t be easy. Many airlines do not own their own flight simulators; they rely on external suppliers—either other airlines, OEMs or third parties. In pre-COVID times it was not an issue if a pilot had to travel internationally to do a simulator check or other training. Now, however, with so many borders closed, that may not be an option. IATA is working with governments to provide special exemptions to allow pilots to travel for training purposes but so far has had limited success.
Supply chain challenges
But it is not just airlines and parts suppliers involved in the restart of the industry. All stakeholders need to be safe and up to speed to facilitate the pent-up demand for travel.
One of the biggest issues for all those involved on the ground, from cleaners to ground handlers to caterers, is achieving security clearances, a process that can take weeks or even months.
“Workers need to have the appropriate checks made that will allow them to gain access to the operational area,” says Cirilo. “But that takes time. When the downturn hit, many of these workers were laid off or furloughed. As aviation comes back, these furloughed workers will need to receive renewed clearances and new workers will obviously need to be vetted. This could be a major roadblock.”
Fuel supply is another troublesome area requiring a long lead-in time. In some markets, the lead time to have fuel on hand can be as much as three months. With the number of flights in the forthcoming months so hard to judge, ensuring the right amount of fuel, personnel, and equipment at airports will take some intelligent guesswork.
Finally, air traffic controllers, much like pilots, will need to be re-certified on operational positions. They are typically certified on specific sectors so even though domestic traffic has resumed, if a controller is responsible for a sector that mainly handles international airspace, then there would have been very little activity over the past year in these sectors, possibly affecting their position currency. It could take time for controllers to become comfortable managing significantly increased activity in their sectors.
“The initial surge in traffic will be difficult to accommodate,” concludes Cirilo. “The industry will probably require a long lead-in time for a safe restart, and it doesn’t look like governments will give us the notice we need. We have the right solutions and safety remains our top priority. But the industry cannot be restarted with a click of the fingers. Governments must provide clear roadmaps.”