Regulators, insurers and experts warn airlines of further concerns when reactivating aircraft left in extensive storage during the Covid-19 pandemic, citing possible pilot rust, maintenance errors and even insect nests blocking key sensors.
The unprecedented number of aircraft landed when a coronavirus blockade blocked air travel – at one point reaching two-thirds of the global fleet – created a growing number of reported problems as airlines return them to service.
The number of “destabilized” or ill-treated approaches has grown sharply this year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Such mishaps can result in difficult landings, runways or even crashes.
Concerned by IATA data, insurers are questioning airlines about whether they are doing extra pilot training to focus on landings, said Gary Moran, chief of Asian aviation at insurance broker Aon PLC.
“They want to know about the circumstances of the training,” he said.
Approaches and landings place significant demands on crew, for whom training and regular experience are considered indispensable.
According to aircraft manufacturer Airbus SE, the largest category of fatal accidents can be tracked as far as the approach to an airport, while the largest number of non-lethal accidents occur during the landing.
In May, a Pakistan International Airlines jet crashed after a destabilized approach, killing 97 people, while 18 died in an Air India Express crash landing in August, also after a destabilized approach.
Insects in tubes
Training is not the only concern.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) reported an “alarming trend” in the number of reports of unreliable airspeed and altitude readings during the first flight after an aircraft left storage.
In some cases, takeoffs had to be abandoned or the aircraft had to return to base.
In most cases, the problem has been traced to unnoticed insect nests inside the plane’s pitotubes, pressure-sensitive sensors that deliver key data to an aircraft computer.
In June, a Wizz Air Holdings PLC jet halted takeoff after the captain found the speed read zero.
An examination of the plane found insect larvae in one of the pitot tubes, with the plane parked 12 weeks before the flight, the British Air Accident Investigation said last month. No passengers were on board.
Insects blocking a pitotube contributed to the 1996 crash of a chartered Birgenair plane in the Dominican Republic, which killed all 189 people on board.
Kate Seaton, a Singapore aerospace partner at law firm HFW, said flight crews should be aware of possible defects that may not have been properly identified as aircraft return to service after an unprecedented landing.
“We are in new territory – the industry needs to take steps to mitigate the risks, but needs to be prepared for the unexpected,” she said.
EASA said last month that problems found after long-term parking included engine stalled during flight after technical problems, pollution of fuel system, reduced pressure of parking brake and emergency batteries losing their charge.
“We have people coming back to work pretty rusty, which is a big problem,” insurer Aon’s Moran said.
Airlines have developed training programs for pilots re-entering services, ranging from theory refreshments to multiple simulation sessions and controlled in-flight controls, depending on the absence.
An Australian aviation regulator said on November 30 that its inspectors will strengthen surveillance of related risks of Covid-19, which concern re-entry into service, pilot training and safety risk management for the rest of the year until 30 June 2021
Pilots also need to honestly assess their skills and confidence after returning to work, spokesman Peter Meiresonne, a representative of the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations, said on an industrial website in October. They may need to reject offers as shorter landing approaches from air traffic control if they don’t feel ready, he said.
“Maybe now is a good time to say,‘ We’re not capable today ’or‘ Give us a six- or 10-mile row instead of a four-mile row ’, which you might accept when you’re smarter and (flying) experience is) fresh, “he said.
(This story was published by a wireless agency without modifications to the text.)
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