Friday, October 15, 2021

As air travel picks up pace, out-of-practice pilots are making errors during flight

Sydney/New Delhi: Back in the cockpit after time off recovering from Covid-19, an airline pilot forgot to start his plane’s second engine for takeoff, a mistake that could have ended in disaster if he hadn’t aborted the flight.

Another pilot, fresh from a seven-month layoff because of the pandemic and descending to land early in the morning, realized almost too late he hadn’t lowered the wheels and pulled out of the approach just 800 feet (240 meters) from the tarmac.

Weeks earlier, a passenger plane leaving a busy airport headed off in the wrong direction, flown by a captain who was back on deck for the first time in more than six months.

These potentially disastrous errors all took place in the U.S. in recent months as pilots returned to work. In every case, crew blamed their oversight on a shortage of flying during Covid, the most deadly pandemic since the 1918 influenza outbreak and certainly the only one to have wreaked such havoc on what was a burgeoning global aviation industry.

The incidents are among dozens of mistakes, confidentially declared by out-of-practice pilots since the start of the pandemic, that are stored on a low-profile database designed to identify emerging safety threats. The monitoring program, funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, is decades old but is now flashing warning signs as planes return to the skies across the world.

Deep cuts by airlines left some 100,000 pilots globally working skeleton hours or on long-term leave, according to consulting firm Oliver Wyman. Many haven’t flown for more than 18 months. But as rising vaccination rates allow travel to resume, concerns are growing that a lack of proficiency, confidence, or simply one moment of forgetfulness could lead to tragedy.

“It is really a critical situation,” said Uwe Harter, a grounded Airbus SE A380 pilot for Deutsche Lufthansa AG who’s also the executive vice president for technical and safety standards at the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations. “The last thing the industry needs now is a bad accident.”

While some airlines are providing pilots with adequate retraining, others are offering “the bare minimum,” if anything at all, said Harter, who himself hasn’t flown since February 2020. “The regulations that we have aren’t sufficient.”

It’s not as if authorities are blind to this. The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets industry standards, and the International Air Transport Association have seen the risks looming for months. Both bodies, as well as Europe’s top aviation regulator, have published detailed training guides to help airlines transition out-of-practice pilots back into the air.

But interviews with pilots from Asia and Europe — and the database of anonymous accounts in the U.S. — reveal varying degrees of ability and confidence among those who have returned to duty, including pilots who have completed retraining programs.

That’s partly because no amount of classroom or virtual theory, or practice in a flight simulator, can replicate the real-life pressures of a cockpit. Nor do these preparations fully take into account the psychological, emotional and financial stresses from the pandemic weighing on airline crew.

“If there’s an engine failure or a fire, then you have to implement that procedure,” said Amit Singh, a former head of pilot training at Indian airline IndiGo who founded not-for-profit organization Safety Matters. “If you haven’t flown for a long time, it may take you a few minutes or seconds extra.”

15/10/21 Angus Whitley and Anurag Kotoky/Print

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