With flight hours significantly down due to shelter-at-home instructions by state authorities, personnel choose to catch up with training and aircraft maintenance.
By Pro Pilot staff
Downtime doesn’t equate to inactivity. Although many aviation activities have experienced a decrease in flight hours, there are corporate flight departments that have kept flying as usual – but with added sanitary precautions adopted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
While many corporate pilots report flight department shutdowns and employee furloughs since the authorities recommended sheltering at home in late March, those who are active have decided to make the most out of this forced break from flying.
Aircraft maintenance, personnel training, and improving safety and health protocols are among the activities being conducted during this time.
On May 29, 2020, FAA extended through July 31, 2020 4 regulatory exemptions that give scheduled and on-demand US air carriers grace periods for completing certain training and qualification requirements.
These exemptions were issued to give crew members relief from having to don protective breathing equipment or oxygen masks in training, checking, or evaluation. Originally, these exemptions were going to expire on May 31.
On the same date, the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) and other associations requested FAA to extend the effective date for several exemptions, as well as for pilot medical certifications, training proficiency, and a host of other requirements contained in Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 118.
The package provides regulatory relief for affected pilots to remain in compliance with several FAA mandates during the pandemic.
To ensure general aviation can continue to play a vital role in Covid-19 response, management, and recovery, the associations requested an additional month of flexibility for pilots, operators, and certificate holders to comply with certain training, recent experience, testing, and checking requirements provided in SFAR 118; additional relief until September 30 for medical and renewal requirements provided in SFAR 118; and relief for pilots, operators, and certificate holders facing expiring experience, testing, checking, duration, medical, and renewal expirations in July, August, and September.
Gulfstream Captain Chuck Love.
Reopening flight depts
Johnson & Johnson Director of Aviation Carl Sorg reports that his flight department closed temporarily in early March. He expects to reopen soon, subject to company guidance.
When the flight department reactivates, the company has put in place a special safety protocol that mandates the use of masks by anyone who boards the plane, and limits the number of passengers to 6 per flight. Wearing gloves is discretionary.
If a person becomes ill, they must practice proper hand hygiene, and the flightcrew will provide an airsickness bag for the safe disposal of tissues used. If the situation constitutes an inflight medical emergency, they must call MedAire.
“Everyone on board, including the flightcrew, is required to wear masks as per our policies driven by guidance from our medical director,” remarks Sorg. Johnson & Johnson aircraft carry personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and flu kits.
Regarding services at FBOs visited during this period, Sorg adds, “We have only had 1 flight so far, to APF (Naples FL). Services available at Naples Airport Authority were fuel only. They only allowed the crew into the building.
Pax had to go directly to and from the aircraft in a car.” MPW Director of Aviation Eric Mitchelson also reports a temporary closure of his company’s flight department. MPW’s last flight was on March 13.
MPW has special protocols for safe passenger, crew, aircraft and baggage handling for when the flight department is back up and running.
Temperatures will be taken prior to entering the building, and passengers and crew will be wearing masks, although management is debating whether the masks should come off once the flightcrew is in the cockpit.
Each plane carries a sanitation kit for passengers in case they need it while on ground transportation.
Each plane also has OEM-recommended cleaning kits. “When the aircraft are back in our base, another full wipe-down and ozone treatment are done if necessary,” adds Mitchelson.
“Passengers handle their own baggage, as we will be doing very few overnights.
If we have to stay on the road, passengers will handle their bags to the plane, and the crew will load bags using disinfectant wipes. Only trusted hotels will be used.” Special medical equipment aboard MPW aircraft now includes a defibrillator.
Essential flights only
Peco Foods Director of Flight Ops Andy Kilgore declares, “Our company’s management determined that flying be ‘business critical only,’ so sales/customer trips were eliminated, as they were deemed non-essential. However, our company has been tagged as ‘essential’ as we are a food supplier.
Our facilities have been operating with protocols in place.” Peco has been flying with measures in place similar to those at the company’s plants – temperatures are taken, additional cleanings of aircraft interiors are carried out before and after flights, and sanitizing wipes are available for crew and passengers in the cockpit and the aft cabin.
“Before the pandemic, our department was on a record pace for hours flown for the year,” notes Kilgore. “We have had an increase in hours each year for the past 10 years, and 2020 will be the first drop-off from the year prior.
We have only flown into a couple of FBOs during the pandemic, one of which has gone as far as requiring 2-way radio communication prior to arrival to verify the flight’s place of origin to better manage any possible exposure.” Medical equipment in Peco Foods aircraft is limited to first aid kits and AED devices.
“We have added Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, and disposable bags for placing clothing items or shoes to minimize exposure,” adds Kilgore.
Enhanced safety protocols
Like most other Part 91 operators, Qualcomm has seen flight cancellations as a result of the pandemic.
“We have developed a robust set of protocols which address all aspects of executive travel from hangar door to hangar door,” explains Greg Woods, senior director of corporate aviation.
“Our protocols are based on significant industry benchmarks and internal discussions and meetings.”
Once these protocols were finalized at Qualcomm, aviation and security presented the changes to company leadership for suggestions and approval. “We are now engaged in a comprehensive change management process to ensure success,” adds Woods.
“And although we have not adjusted the health and safety equipment on our aircraft, each passenger is issued a personal medical kit which includes a thermometer for self assessment.”
Part 91 flight departments that have remained fully operational during this extraordinary period have done so while adopting best safety and health practices from across the industry.
“Our management hasn’t officially canceled any flights. We have remained at full operational capacity throughout,” says AIMI Aviation Manager David Bjellos. “We took a compilation of best practices from Gulfstream, NBAA, and our company-specific directives, and made a template for both helicopters and airplanes. It remains a working document and is updated constantly.”
To John Deere, the safety of its employees is of the utmost importance. “The company has strict travel restrictions which have affected the frequency of our flight activity,” says John Deere Aviation Sr Capt Daniel Wolford.
The company took the initiative to start manufacturing protective face shields for healthcare workers.
“We have shipped more than 350,000 units, and we’ve also encouraged volunteering in sewing cloth masks for those in our communities,” he adds. “There is also a 2:1 employee match program to encourage donations to local food banks and to the American Red Cross.”
Alex Panchana, CEO of Alaxair, a management and consulting aviation company based in Zürich, Switzerland, stresses the need for crews and passengers to be protected with gloves, masks, and disinfectants.
“In our aircraft, there is always a package of disinfection wipes in the cockpit, cabin, and the galley” he says.
With flight cancellations due to the Covid-19 pandemic, those Part 91 pilots who are still flying report that services at their destinations are reduced in all categories.
However, special care is being taken at both company hangars and FBOs. Corporate flight departments deemed crucial are taking extreme actions to keep operations safe and healthy, such as running ozone machines daily to disinfect interiors, and limiting aircraft occupancy.
With this level of commitment industry-wide, there’s no doubt that corporate flying will continue to play a vital role in the imminent recovery and inexorable growth of the world economy.