By Wing Commander K Dinesh
India is reopening scheduled domestic flight services on 25 May 2020 after two months of grounding its fleet of above 650 commercial aircrafts. About 58500 aviation employees remained at home including 7800 pilot and 13000 cabin crew. The last known occasion of mass grounding was on 11 Sep 2001 (9/11) when planes were put on ground across USA & Canada. The 9/11 incident triggered revised security norms and the planes were up and flying soon thereafter. The current worldwide grounding of airlines over such prolonged period is unprecedented in Aviation history.
As with grounding of aviation, restarting airline operation in India is also going to be a novel experience. Unlike USA and many European nations which kept air services open, India is one of the countries which shut down it’s scheduled international and domestic services completely. India has now decided to open up airline operation with a maximum of 33 percent of its fleet strength. From operations perspective, as airlines prepare to restart scheduled services, it must be done with full preparation and abundance of caution. Safety remains paramount at all times. Any accident or incident in the opening up phase can have a negative impact far and wide including the effort to rejuvenate aviation in India.
The recent crash of Pakistan International Airline’s Airbus 320 flight PK 8303 near Karachi on 22 May 20 has already set the aviation stake holders reviewing the adequacy of preparation by airlines to restart air operations safely. As of now, we know very little about the circumstances leading to the crash, however, two fact stand out clear – Pakistan had completely shut commercial air operations for two months and that Pakistan had recommenced commercial air operations recently on 16 May 20. That bears similarity with Indian Aviation in terms of timelines. The crash of a reliable aeroplane barely a week after the resumption of service will be under active consideration by investigators for the possibility that the accident may be related to the so called ‘gap in flying’ due prolonged grounding of airlines. Meanwhile, for country like India which is restarting scheduled airline operations from scratch, the accident has thrown up an entirely new area in operational concern, namely “cautions and precautions in restarting airlines operations Post COVID 19”.
Boeing in an accident related analysis reported a 80 : 20 trend in aviation accidents. Boeing quotes that 80 percent of accidents are caused by human factors. This includes the errors by pilots, mechanics, ground handlers and ATC – leaving 20 percent to design defects and unmanageable inflight technical faults. Interestingly, the proportion was exactly opposite in the early days of aviation when only 20 percent of accidents were due to human factors.
The factors leading to the 80 : 20 trend in the aviation accidents is well documented. Over the years, the reliability of machines and aero engines have increased manifolds. For example, modern long haul aircraft like the two engine Airbus 350 can fly for over 6 hours with only one engine operative -just in case the other engine develops fault and has to be shut down in-flight. Failure of other aircraft systems on board doesn’t ruffle the pilots in most cases due to layers of redundancy in aircraft systems (at times 4 levels of fall back / standby system). Often, the pilot doesn’t come to know of failures until the maintenance crew discover it during the ground checks.
If commercial airliners are so safe, why do aircraft accidents happen? As evident from data above, in modern aviation it is the human behind the machine who matters – hence, the emphasis on human factors in accident. Chasing the 80 : 20 factor, our focus will be the uncharted steps towards preparedness of aviation manpower for safe operations with particular emphasis on preparation of aircrew (pilots and cabin crew) and maintenance crew.
Psychology plays a critical role in aviation – pilots and cabin crew are by far the most affected by Psychological aspects. This in turn affects their mental and physical preparedness to operate the flight. A clear understanding of pilot’s psychological state of mind is therefore important to meet safety standards. It is interesting to know how few airlines in India worked relentlessly in background during COVID lock down to mitigate some of the psychologically adverse affects of the lock down on its manpower- the cockpit crew in particular.
Pilots need to be current with flying. It is unrealistic to expect full scale performance from a pilot after remaining away from the aeroplane for prolonged period. In order to mitigate the debilitating effect, airlines like Indigo kept pilots busy at home throughout the lock down with online study of aviation modules. In addition to the so called “Gap in flying lessons” modules, certain innovative and interesting videos specific to lock down operations (like peculiarities in cargo flights, repatriation flights) not only kept pilots connected to their profession but kept them ready with latest SOP to operate flights safely at short notice. Indigo made sure that pilots completed the modules in time and responded to the online tests successfully. Online connect has now become a way of life for airlines with professional outlook.
Agreed, e-lessons don’t match the benefits of flying the bird in real!! Amidst Lock down, the need for cargo movement by air and repatriation of nationals came as a blessing for airlines. Airlines took every opportunity to put maximum pilots into cockpit and renewed the currency of as many pilots as possible.
India’s airlines operated over 1200 special flights (passenger & freight) during the aviation embargo. Theoretically, this translates to a big opportunity for airlines to renew flying currency of majority of it’s pilots. Regulations require pilots to do one flight to renew currency. To leverage full benefit, the airlines put additional two pilots in cockpit as observers who would be ready to independently operate the next leg of flight. In the process, India has created a large pool of experienced and active pilots who would be available to operate the flights when airlines start operations on 25 May 20. In addition, to enhance safety, DGCA has suggested that the initial few flight be flown preferably by deploying two Captains in place of a first officer.
But a larger issue is the grounded planes and their maintenance. Grounded planes come with their own set of issues. Prolonged grounding requires additional maintenance and extensive checks when it is taken out of storage. To avoid the issues concerning grounding, it seems like a better option if empty planes could be flown occasionally around the airport in something called a circuit pattern. This could have kept the aircraft fleet active and met pilot training requirement too. However, economics of aviation don’t sync with this proposal especially when alternate means were available.
Once again the large number of repatriation flights and cargo flights came to benefit India’s airlines. Theoretically, India should have been able to fly all its aircraft atleast once during the aviation lock down. That may be a idealistic scenario and far fetched proposition given the logistical challenges in aviation. However, airlines made the best use of the flights by deploying aircraft in rotation to keep most of its fleet airworthy. For example, Air India and AI Express together flew repatriation flight exceeding the number of planes they hold. Similarly Indigo and SpiceJet flew special cargo flights (with compatible cargo in passenger seats) and the belly of the plane. The planes were flown in rotation to keep as many of them airworthy. Indian domestic travel would therefore be opening on a safer note.
Although we are reopening aviation, but from an aircrew perspective, the experience is entirely different for pilots and the cabin crew too. Until COVID 19, civil aviation pilots have never flown with PPE or masks on them. There are challenges and initial discomfort associated with the new ‘attire’ – but that is a matter of time. Interestingly, the flight attendants are back to their role in the 1940’s – flying nurses, helping CoviD anxious passengers travel without fear. Never ever before has flying been so challenging. However, the Indian aviators seem prepared to handle the new normal. The special flights with passengers as well as cargo has trained the pilots and Flight Attendants to safely operate flights under the newly imposed restrictions with PPE especially on long flights. Once again the experience from repatriation flights helped airlines to built a SOP for passenger management which will come handy when regular passenger operation commences shortly.
Despite all enabling factors, airline management need to exercise caution in the initial few days of the flight operations. It is worthwhile noting that the all sub sectors of aviation is opening at the same time under stressed conditions – the environment is unfamiliar, to say the least.
The prolonged lock down has been stressful and taxing for many aircrew. This is especially true amidst paycut and the growing uncertainties of retaining jobs as airlines may resize their fleet in the weeks to come. In an attempt to assuage these fears, few airlines followed employee friendly HR and financial policies. Airlines like Indigo have been proactive in this regard. They had a system of contact sessions between line pilots and their fleet supervisors. In addition, the management kept the employees informed giving realistic position and the mitigating steps that they were taking to retain employees. All this gave the sense of being cared for. However this may not be true for all airlines. It is important to identify lock down related stressors as applicable to air crew. An Informal psychological assessment (peer assessment) of pilots and aircrew may be recommended to identify weak links from safety perspective.
Workload management in initial few flights is yet another emerging threat. Modern aeroplanes have autopilot, flight management Computers and other systems that share the workload of the pilot. However, pilots workload varies during the three phases of flight – being maximum during take off and landing (photo inset). Failure of systems may impose additional workload on pilots for which they are regularly trained in simulators. However, in the absence of regular flying, it is likely that the pilot response to the additional work overload due to in-flight emergencies in cockpit especially during landing may lead to errors. It is a documented fact that accidents during approach phase and landing are often due to poor management of added workload in cockpit due to weather, ATC delays, inflight unservicabilities / emergencies and poor coordination between crew. The gap and lack of recency in flying is an added point to be factored in. ALAR (Approach and Landing Accident Reduction) toolkits have shown that accidents during Appproach and landing are avoidable by following cardinal rules of aviation. Cockpit crew need to bear this factor in the their mind until atleast regular flying is possible.
DGCA has required two captains to fly instead of the standard combination of a Capt and Co pilot. Although it increases the cockpit experience, the lack of ‘authority gradient’ has often led to unsafe cockpit environment and resultant accidents. Few infamous accidents with three Captains in the cockpit (including an Examiner) are attributable to total breakdown of authority gradient in cockpit. It is desirable that the standard configuration be followed as soon as possible to ensure the standard work distribution and the authority gradient.
Initial few days of post lockdown flying will be under media scanner. Alertness level of passengers is going to be high. Bad landing, diversions and umpleasant flights are likely to be judged and reported from passenger perspective. This could lead to performance anxiety amongst air crew. Airlines need to give their pilots free hand to decide the safe operation of flight irrespective of the opinion of those who do not matter..
Unlike the repatriation / special flights, the operating crew of regular flights can expect wide ranging issues and distuptions from passengers as almost all of them would have boarded the flight with anxiety. Although laws provide for treating them as unruly / distruptive passengers, the crew would be best advised to empathise with them and seek compliance towards safe flight. Disproportionate use of law would prove counter productive for the airline. Cabin crew and the Captain need to be sensitised to this proposal.
In conclusion, revival of a national air transport system post lock down is a critical activity which need to be executed with extra caution. The success of the initial few flights will decide if passengers are willing to take the flights in days to come.
The author Wing Commander K Dinesh is a former Indian Air Force Officer who currently practices as Aviation Safety Consultant and specialises in Flight Anxiety solutions for air travellers. He is the founder of Cockpit Vista, Mumbai ( www.cockpitvista.com ) which runs Flight Anxiety removal program at the center and also online He is conducting a special online program for travel anxiety related to COVID 19. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you may call on 9833892747