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How’s Covid-19 affecting air transport?


One industry, one goal: To mitigate the effects of the pandemic in aviation.

By Shannon Forrest
President, Turbine Mentor
ATP/CFII. Challenger 604/605, Gulfstream IV, MU2B

Officers wearing protective suits perform airport health checks at BLQ (Bologna, Italy).
In 1996, a flight from FRA (Frankfurt, Germany) to JFK (John F Kennedy, New York NY) was interrupted when a passenger collapsed under medical duress.

At first, the malady appeared to be a heart attack. Captain James Holland immediately declared a medical emergency and informed air traffic control that he wanted to land at LHR (Heathrow, London, UK).

His request was denied, and authorities ordered him to fly back to FRA. Such a mandate was perplexing. German medical professionals determined that the passenger at the center of the medical emergency was likely infected with a deadly strain of influenza. The highly contagious nature of the new virus meant that a quarantine would be necessary on arrival.

Fearing a worst-case scenario in Germany, Holland tried to end the flight earlier by landing at RAF Mildenhall in England. Once again, he was turned away. Vehicles positioned on the runway prevented him from touching down.

Eventually, the captain landed the Boeing 747 in Iceland, where it was met by armed troops in full chemical warfare gear. Sadly, one passenger was shot during a frantic and panic-stricken attempt to escape the quarantine.

Invisible enemies

If this story sounds fake, that’s because it is. It’s the plot of the novel and made-for-TV movie, Pandora’s Clock (also called Doomsday Virus) from the mind of author John J Nance. The story resonates with pilots because Nance is one himself. Nance’s official biography identifies him as being a lawyer, former USAF pilot (veteran of Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm), alumnus of Braniff Airlines, and retired Alaska Airlines 737 captain.

He’s a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction alike, and his 1986 novel Blind Trust was one of the first to advocate aviators adopt a newly emerging operating technique called crew resource management (CRM).

In Blind Trust, first-generation CRM was directed at an invisible enemy – a pilot’s own psyche. Today, the entire aviation industry faces another daunting invisible adversary in the form of the Covid-19 virus. Nance’s fictitious account of a killer virus that travels the world using an airplane as a vector and its effect on human behavior is telling.

Social scientists tend to agree that perception plays a large role in how people react to any stimulus. There’s an adage in legal circles that says there are 3 sides to every story: the plaintiff’s, the defendant’s, and the truth. The debate over Covid-19 is no different. One mainstream news source describes it as the biggest killer since the Black Death, while another claims it’s no worse than seasonal influenza.

Covid-19’s etiology and actual fatality rate remains to be seen, but its enormous impact on worldwide aviation operations, and how air travelers view the outbreak is unquestionable.

TSA data shows that only 119,854 passengers passed through US checkpoints on April 27, 2020. On the same day last year, TSA screened 2.4 million passengers. The reduced numbers of travelers are reflective of widespread flight cancellations attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Private aviation

China was presumed to be the origin of the outbreak. As such, it was the first to impose quarantines and civil restrictions on its populace.

In March 2020, some businesses in the US began enacting policies to restrict commercial air travel to “essential only” missions. Airline ticket sales started to decline.

At first, it was business as usual for corporate aviation (except for travel to China) because private flight departments have an advantage over the airlines when it comes to preventing the spread of a contagion – business aircraft carry fewer passengers spaced further apart, same crew members often are paired together, and there are fewer flights over time.

As reports of Covid-19 increased and geographical regions emerged as hotspots, private air travel – especially charter – saw an uptick. The reason was obvious – those with the will and means to flee from areas considered high risk did so. By the end of March, the prevailing philosophy among US businesses was to shy away from airline travel.

Conferences were cancelled. Entire countries closed their borders to inbound flights. Passengers became nervous of forced quarantines and opted to stay home instead of flying commercially.

The combined loss of the business and leisure traveler caused precipitous declines in airline revenue. To cut costs, airlines began to drastically slash schedules.

The website Flightradar24, which provides real-time tracking of flights in radar contact, published a graphic image that showed the difference in air traffic in US domestic airspace at 21:00 UTC on March 1 versus March 29, 2020. The end of the month showed 4000 fewer aircraft in the air for a given date and time than 4 weeks prior.

The data also showed a decline in corporate flying. As “social distancing” and “work from home” became widespread, the demand for air travel came to an end. It’s important to note that, unlike after 9/11, flying commercial or private has not been banned or curtailed in US airspace.

Routes formerly considered high-density or congested are seeing much less traffic, so pilots who do fly can obtain “direct to” clearances and short-cuts with ease.

ATC instructions to “turn left, vector for spacing” or “what’s the slowest Mach you can do?” have largely disappeared. Short taxi times seem to be the norm in the major metropolitan areas.

ATC Zero

One operational challenge that has appeared, albeit infrequently, is “ATC Zero” or the loss of all ATC-related services in a terminal area.

Anecdotal information about air traffic controllers testing positive for Covid-19 is blamed. A tower-controlled airport in a state of ATC Zero is not the same thing as a closed airport. Pilots not familiar with non-towered operations may want to review the procedures using the Aeronautical Information manual (AIM).

If an ATC Zero state is declared during the approach to landing, a knowledge of the situation may prevent an unnecessary diversion.

Reduced air traffic operations and increased sick calls have forced some ATC facilities to temporarily suspend or eliminate services. For example, in mid-April, the ATIS at BTV (Burlington VT) indicated that, “due to reduced staffing levels, pattern work may be denied.”

The ability to conduct pattern work when piloting a corporate aircraft is generally not a concern, but some flight departments are reporting that reduced flying could affect FAA requirement for pilots to conduct 3 takeoffs and landings every 90 days.

If demand for travel doesn’t improve, it might be necessary to take the jet around the traffic pattern a couple of times to satisfy the currency requirement, although at the time of this writing FAA was considering a temporary exemption of the rule.

Pilot medical certificates

Another unanticipated consequence affects pilot medical certificates. FAA sanctioned medical certificates expire on the last day of the month, and it’s not uncommon for pilots to delay renewal until the last week of the expiration month.

High demand on the medical infrastructure led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ask doctors to postpone elective and non-urgent procedures to prioritize resources for Covid-19 response. FAA stated that “it is not in the public interest at this time to maintain the requirement of an FAA medical examination, which is a non-emergency medical service…”

Consequently, FAA has suspended enforcement actions for medical certificates expiring between March 31 and June 30, 2020. Certificates that expired before this 4-month window are not covered by this exemption. Pilots who meet the requirement can refrain from renewing a medical until the last day of June 2020.

Some aviation medical examiners (AMEs) continue to renew medical certificates during this timeframe. One busy AME with an office in a large population center remains open during this time because his practice is devoted exclusively to pilot medical certificates. His patients, most of whom are airline pilots, are not exposed to the general population during their visit.

They have their temperature taken prior to an exam, and those with a fever are asked to reschedule. He also points out that his schedule fills up several weeks ahead of time, so there are no slots available in June. Pilots need to use their judgement to decide whether renewing a certificate during the pandemic is an acceptable risk.

Those who require a medical certificate as a condition of employment, and decide to take advantage of the FAA exemption, may find scheduling an exam to be more difficult the longer they wait. Keeping flightcrews safe while flying during a pandemic has proved challenging.

On March 12, 2020, FAA issued Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) number 20003, entitled “COVID-19: Interim Health Guidance for Air Carriers and Crews.” Much like CDC, FAA recommends social distancing and is asking crews to eat alone and remain in their hotel rooms during overnight stays.

It advises organizations to avoid public transportation and engage private services to transport crews to and from the aircraft.

Aerosol disinfectants are more effective than wiping down commonly touched surfaces with a cleaning solution. Constant Aviation treats aircraft with MicroShield 360, which can be applied in less than an hour. Aircraft can be returned to service shortly thereafter.

Disinfecting aircraft

To prevent or mitigate viral propagation, Flexjet treated all its aircraft with Microshield 360, a non-toxic, non-poisonous, FDA-approved product that protects against pathogens, mold, and odors. Microshield 360 consists of a disinfectant and biostatic finish applied in a 3-stage, aerosol-based process.

The manufacturer claims the product can provide anti-microbial protection for up to 1 year. It is available through Constant Aviation, which provides the service through a Constant Aviation Rotable Exchange (CARE) subsidiary.

Pricing shown on the CARE website indicates the cost of Microshield 360 to be $2750 and $3750 for small- and large-cabin aircraft, respectively.

Installation is free when conducted at a CARE facility – CLE (Hopkins, Cleveland OH), CGF (Cuyahoga County, Cleveland OH), or SFB (Sanford, Orlando FL) – when combined with aircraft maintenance.

Operator approach

Fractional jet provider Flexjet has adopted particular policies to protect crew members and passengers. Traditionally, the company used commercial airlines to position pilots and flight attendants for their assignments. Although airline load factors averaged less than 25% in the beginning of April, making it easier to keep a safe distance on board, Flexjet is keeping employees off the airlines by using its own jets to position crew members for assignments.

Some organizations are dealing with the Covid-19 situation by isolating portions of the flight department, or standing down entirely. A strategy being used to minimize exposure, but still maintain operational readiness, is to pair specific pilots or crews together and not violate those arrangements.

To illustrate, a department of 20 pilots would divide the cockpit crew into 10 teams of 2. The members of those teams would only fly with one another. If a crew member exhibits symptoms or tests positive for Covid-19, only 1 other pilot (and perhaps a flight attendant) has been exposed, and now those individuals can be removed from duty without affecting the entire operation.

Had the whole flight department been permitted to intermingle unabated, and a single person became symptomatic, the extent of the exposure would be unknown. Departments choosing not to fly at all during the pandemic are using the time to conduct e-learning and career enrichment activities online.

Financials of Covid-19

Just a few months ago, the biggest topic among corporate aviation managers was the inability to attract or retain talent as the airlines hired in record numbers. Now, according to Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly, his airline is in intensive care.

But it’s not just Southwest that’s in financial duress. Airline revenues are severely down, hiring has stopped, and some are taking government money to make payroll. The airline “F” word – furlough – is being talked about as pilots become increasingly concerned about schedule reductions and almost no passengers.

Corporate pilots are worried about the “new normal” of working from home and avoiding face-to-face contact. When stay-at-home orders are lifted, will anyone want to travel again? Will the corporate aircraft be unwarranted? The rate at which airline traffic returns will be a vivid indicator of what’s perceived as “normal.”

After all, the airlines’ entire model is based on fitting the greatest number of people in the smallest amount of space – not exactly a recipe for stopping the spread of disease. Being wedged shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle seat adjacent to a coughing stranger doesn’t sound desirable.

It never did. But wanderlust is a powerful motivator. According to Aristotle, “Man is by nature a social animal,” and, “Society is something that precedes the individual.” In the long term, people will return to flying. The short-term solution is more complex.

The ability to adapt to changes while remaining focused on the safety and longevity of the flight department is paramount in this time of unprecedented crisis.

Shannon Forrest is a current line pilot, CRM facilitator, and aviation safety consultant. He has over 10,000 hours and holds a degree in behavioral psychology.