On September 15, an Indonesian flight with 307 passengers and 11 crew members to the northern city of Medan turned off the runway briefly after landing and triggered an investigation by the country’s traffic safety authority. It turned out that the pilot had flown less than three hours in the past 90 days. The first officer had not flown at all since February 1.
The incident underscores an emerging risk of the coronavirus pandemic: pilots are not getting enough flight options as airlines have suspended planes and cut operations due to a collapse in demand for air travel.
In its preliminary report, the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee said the pandemic had made it more difficult to maintain pilots’ skills and flight experience. The Lion Air aircraft involved was an Airbus SE A330, one of ten in the airline’s fleet. Since Lion Air does not have a simulator for the A330, its pilots are trained at third-party facilities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The travel restrictions of Covid-19 have made access to these difficult.
“Flying regularly keeps your mind in the cockpit,” said Mohan Ranganathan, an aviation safety advisor who was an advisor to India’s Directorate-General for Civil Aviation. “If we don’t fly for that long, it creates complacency. Add in lost income, uncertainty about jobs or the future of the airline, which creates additional stress. As the stress increases, skills decrease.”
According to the analytics company Cirium, almost a third of the world‘s passenger jets are still in storage – parked in central Australia and in the US Mojave Desert. While domestic travel has rebounded in larger markets like China, international traffic is far from pre-pandemic levels due to border restrictions and mandatory quarantine, which heavily discourages travelers. Thousands of pilots have been laid off or on leave, and those who are still working fly far less because there is so little demand.
The rustiness of the pilots was also recognized by Europe’s leading air safety officer as a possible factor in the crash of a Pakistan International Airlines Corp. plane. in Karachi in May, which killed all but two of the 99 people on board. No one was injured in the incident on the Lion Air runway.
“The pilots did not seem to be making the way they conducted their flights as fluid as they should,” said Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, of the PIA flight in September. “If you haven’t flown for three months, six months, you have to be retrained in some way to get back.”
This concern is shared by others. At an event in October, Singapore Central Bank chief Ravi Menon spoke about the ongoing effects of Covid-19 on the aviation industry and on pilots who have not flown in a long time. “It’s not like picking up after a two month break. If you take two years off it’s very different, ”he said.
In its preliminary report on the Lion Air incident, the Indonesian Security Agency set out the pilots’ experience, the aircraft’s approach, weather conditions and landing. The pilot in charge was a 48-year-old Airbus A330 flight instructor who had approximately 17,000 flight hours. The 46-year-old first officer, who worked as a captain for Thai Lion Air before moving to Indonesia in March, had a similar number of flying hours.
On its approach, Flight 208 requested a runway change due to the stormy weather. At approximately 1,000 feet, the first officer gave the pilot control. Then he noticed that the plane was approaching the left edge of the runway and asked the pilot to adjust. The right rudder pedal was pressed after touchdown, but the left main landing gear detached from the asphalt and broke two runway lights.
The report found that Indonesia’s General Directorate of Civil Aviation issued a circular in May to test pilot proficiency during the pandemic, allowing certain exceptions and extensions due to flight time restrictions. However, the circular did not provide detailed guidelines for airlines on how to operate under these exemptions.
A Lion Air spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television last week, Vice President of the International Air Transport Association for the Asia-Pacific Region, Conrad Clifford, said the industry group was trying to create special travel bubbles so that pilots can access simulators to make sure they are stay up to date. “I’m happy to say governments are doing something about it,” he said.
In addition, the International Civil Aviation Organization has requested that flight crew be recognized as key personnel so they can use travel bubbles and access training facilities, including simulators, to maintain certifications, experience and knowledge.
Ian Cheng, senior vice president of flight operations at Scoot, the low-cost carrier of Singapore Airlines Ltd., said its pilots are still busy with simulator sessions and meetings to keep up with the latest developments. “Because of the low volume of flight, it’s important to keep skills high,” he said.
According to Ranganathan, it will take about a month for the pilots to regain their confidence and skills, along with a lot of training.
“If you are not focused, decisions can be delayed,” he said. “Only a few seconds can make the difference between a safe flight and an accident.”