27 APRIL 2020
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Jeremy Feldman is a captain for a large UK airline flying the Airbus A320. He is also an editor of the BALPA newspaper 'The Log’. See also COMMENT in this issue.
“COVID-19 has surprised even the most pessimistic with the effects that it has caused to the global travel industry, not least aviation.
British registered airlines are having it particularly tough.
easyJet, with basically only one type of aircraft, Airbus A320 series, is not flying at all; Virgin Atlantic only very limited Boeing 787 operations; Wizz about to make a comeback (see in this issue), and BA Cityflyer, Jet2, Norwegian, Ryanair and TUI grounded. With British Airways the 747 will have quietly gone from the fleet by the time this is all over, and not the triumphant departure for an aircraft that first entered airline service in 1970, 50 years ago. Currently the A380s are not being flown, nor the new A350s. Pilots cannot be swapped between fleets, which means that Boeing 777 and 787, and occasional A350 crews are the only BA flight deck staff getting limited flights, generally no more than one a month.
With most British airlines the focus turns on to when they can restart operations. British Airways employs 4,749 pilots, easyjet UK just less than 2,400, Jet2 about 1,300.
Unfortunately, getting an airline back to an operating schedule is not as simple as suspending one.
In order to bring an airline back up to speed, one of the big factors to consider is crew training, specifically pilots.
There are three principle professional licences that are used by airline pilots.
The entry level is the Multi-Crew Pilot Licence (MPL) and Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL). When a pilot has gained a certain amount of experience, including 1,500 hours of flight time, passed their written examinations (14) and delivered a flight skills test, they may be awarded the Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL), which allows them to act in the role as Commander or Captain of a commercial passenger or freight carrying aircraft.
In addition to the pilot licence, before a pilot is allowed to operate an aircraft above 5,700kg and/or carry 19 or more passengers, they must also additionally qualify to operate and fly that specific type of aircraft. This qualification is also known as a type rating, and is held as part of the pilot licence.
Due to the many complexities of operating a large aircraft, pilots are required to undertake a Licence Skills Test (LST) annually. In addition, the airline operator is required to provide a training programme in which the operator will train and assess the pilot, to the operator’s own company standard. This is also an annual check, and so typically a pilot will undertake training and assessments every six months, usually in a full motion simulator.
Professional pilots are also required to pass a medical examination, known as a Class 1. This is a thorough medical check-up including, but not limited to, an assessment on the pilot's hearing, eyesight, cardiovascular and overall mental health. The health check may require an ECG and detailed hearing analysis to be carried out periodically.
The validity of a Class 1 medical is typically one year and decreases to every six months when the pilot is above a certain age.
Due to the present COVID-19 situation, it has been very difficult to continue to revalidate type ratings and medical certificates. Arguably, sitting in a small simulator less than 2m from colleagues is not considered essential work. Additionally, the majority, though not all aeromedical examiners (AME’s) have stopped carrying out Class 1 medical renewals, for similar reasons.
The UK CAA has been quick to recognise this and have issued General Exemption E5026, which states that holders of licences and ratings that are due to expire before the 31 October 2020 are exempted from the standard validity periods and may be extended until the 22 November 2020. The CAA have been taking a leading proactive role thus far and it would not be unreasonable to expect this guidance to change again in the future.
This alleviation does caveat that pilots with existing medical restrictions, including pilots required to take periodic blood tests for certain medical conditions are still required to have the additional testing, throughout the extension.
Perhaps the biggest problem airlines face is that pilots must also keep ‘current’.
The purpose is that pilots are mentally fresh and sharp. Standard operating procedures and memory checklists should be at the forefront of the pilot’s mind, should anything unforeseen occur during the flight.
One of the requirements for short-haul airline pilots is they must have carried out six take-offs and landings within the preceding 45 days.
Clearly with a majority of airline pilots presently on furlough, when the flying programme starts to recover most pilots will need additional training before they can operate with passengers. It is up to the individual airlines specifically as to how they manage their training, but most likely it will be carried out in a full motion simulator training both a Captain and First Officer together.
Operating a full motion simulator can cost around £350/hour, not including staff costs, and so the airline has to balance when to schedule the training sessions. Too early, and the pilot's 45-day currency may expire again. Too late, and they won’t have ready pilots to operate the flying schedule as required.
Pilots not flying will most likely be on a furlough arrangement, with a recall notice period. One large airline has an agreement with its pilots, where the individual can be recalled off furlough with seven days' notice. Getting the pilots rostered into the simulator also requires personnel to be recalled so that a training plan can be scheduled. The natural reflex of an airline’s management may have been to furlough all non-essential staff straight away, but long before any pilot can start their return to work training, the airline will need to recall the training department staff.
Ultimately, this will be driven by a commercial demand and relaxation of governmental travel restrictions. Data analysts are showing their worth by continuously poring over data gleaned from popular search engines and Skyscanner. By looking to see what routes people are searching and for dates of travel, this will help the airline forecast demand and move towards operating a schedule accordingly with an appropriate demand.
Unfortunately, many UK airlines are struggling financially with little to no income and the prospect of forced part time and redundancies weighs heavily on all airlines employees.
Airline pilots have a difficult job to manage at the best of times. In these unusual circumstances pilots will have to put aside their concerns whilst at work, to be focused and concentrate on the tasks at hand. It is the job of the airline management to support their pilots through these times, including throughout the return to work training, to ensure that pilots can be focused and remain professional, without compromising safety.”
All comments are filtered to exclude any excesses but the Editor does not have to agree with what is being said. 100 words maximum
Edward Harrison, near Yeovil
Very interesting. Thank you.