Grounded! Aviation faces its greatest peacetime crisis

There is now no doubt that measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic will include the longest ever grounding of Europe’s General Aviation (GA) fleet, in addition to the well-publicised suspension of virtually all airline operations. From mid-March onwards events moved quickly in Europe and by Friday 20 March most non-essential businesses had closed in the UK, adhering to government social-distancing advice, encapsulated by the phrase, ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. By the time the UK Prime Minister announced the social distancing ‘lock-down’ on the evening of Monday 23 March, many flying schools had already suspended flying.

Looking at online flight tracking apps, it would appear that the vast majority of the UK GA community reacted quickly to the advice and ceased all flying activity almost immediately. On 31 March the UK government provided specific guidance for the GA community, stating that while there is no outright ban on visual flight rules (VFR) flying, that by observing social distancing measures a self-imposed ban was effectively already in place. The Department for Transport (DfT) said: “Current government guidance on coronavirus precludes recreational GA flying.

“This is being observed in practice by the vast majority of the GA community, and we are grateful to them for doing so. The message we are receiving from the GA community is that they fully appreciate the need for these restrictions and observing them is being widely encouraged throughout the community. Again, we are grateful for this.

“Because the directive to stay at home is being well observed, we do not perceive a need to introduce a specific ban on flying by visual flight rules (VFR) as seen in some European countries.”

European countries that had actually banned VFR flying at the time of writing included Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Norway.

One of key reasons for not banning VFR flying is in order to be able to react quickly once the lockdown ends: “This will have the significant benefit of allowing flexibility, and allowing GA flights to resume as overarching restrictions on movement are lifted,” the DfT explained.

…the UK has been experiencing some of the best early Spring weather conditions it’s had in years … and so the temptation to go flying has been high

Ironically, western Europe has been experiencing some of the best early Spring weather conditions it’s had in years after a generally very poor winter flying season, and so the temptation to go flying has been high. Pilots posting on various online aviation forums have argued the point that remote airfields don’t pose a social-distancing challenge and that individual pilots could easily go flying without contravening government advice. However, the Light Aircraft Association (LAA) was quick to weigh in on the argument and advise pilots to remain grounded. In a letter to association members, widely promulgated on social media, LAA CEO Steve Slater wrote: “We’ve noted significant debate in the social media about whether pilots should fly during the current lock down on non-essential travel. We all have personal decisions to make on this; we’re all grown-ups and should be relied upon to make sensible judgements. Hopefully this advice will help you make the right decision.

“Currently, unlike some other countries, there is no closure of VFR airspace. However, leisure flying is inadvisable. Even if it’s legal, it just doesn’t seem right, does it? Also, if something goes wrong, our whole community could be accused of recklessly using up emergency resources which are much more vitally needed elsewhere. Remember that others outside aviation might see your flight as an unnecessary indulgence, and you could generate ill-feeling from some around your flying site.”

It is perhaps the threat of activating an emergency response following a forced ‘land-out’ that has proved the most persuasive argument for remaining grounded and the GA community appears to have taken this fully on-board. There are concerns, however, that some airfields may have gone too far in their lockdown measures, preventing aircraft owners from accessing their hangars to carry out routine maintenance on their aircraft, such as ‘pulling through’ engines to keep cylinders and gear boxes fully lubricated during their enforced grounding. It is arguable whether travelling to an airfield to carry out private aircraft maintenance is ‘essential travel’, although some GA associations are concerned about the potential safety impacts arising from leaving aircraft unattended for extended periods of time.

At a recent General Aviation Safety Council (GASCo) meeting (conducted via video conference) high on the agenda were initiatives to make the resumption of GA flying as safe as possible. With pilots and their aircraft potentially grounded for months (it was observed that many may not have flown since the end of the VFR season last year), there are understandable concerns over lack of currency for pilots as well as concerns over long-term grounded aircraft.

…the UK CAA has been working hard to minimise pilot licence revalidation issues when GA flying resumes

As reported on page 17 of this edition, the UK CAA has been working hard to minimise pilot licence revalidation issues when GA flying resumes by issuing a number of temporary exemptions for licence/rating revalidation requirements. This should ensure that when GA flying resumes, pilots, instructors and examiners won’t all first need to renew their pilot licences and ratings, subject to regaining currency under a supervised programme.

And when GA pilots recommence flying, what will the UK’s aviation infrastructure look like? Regional airports must surely be concerned about their future viability should the pandemic result in some regional airlines going under. Many UK regional airports keep their commercial eggs in one basket, often relying on just one or two airlines for the bulk of their business. Should those airlines fail or be forced to rationalise their operations and pull routes, then the UK’s regional airports could be in for significant financial hit. Will this mean that those airports that had previously closed their doors to GA traffic, including flight training flights, will now see benefit in opening up to all forms of air traffic? It was reported that even before the pandemic shutdown, Southampton airport lost around 95% of its business when Flybe collapsed in early March. Whilst flight training was still taking place, Southampton apparently invited local flight schools to use the airport’s instrument approach procedures for training.

And what about airspace? As reported previously in FTN, the UK’s airspace infrastructure is scheduled to undergo a radical redesign over the next few years. If regional airports in particular are going to be less busy with less commercial traffic movements, then could more controlled airspace be freed up?

Moving to the flight training industry, all flight training organisations, from the largest commercial ATOs down to the smallest PPL flying schools have been impacted by the pandemic. Most European governments are offering intervention, in the form of grants, loans, tax holidays and job retention initiatives. With these financial crutches in place, schools are reporting confidence in being able to return to normal operations quickly once the pandemic abates.

It’s clearly a concerning time for cadets partway through their commercial pilot training programmes. Cadets who are still in their ground school phase are managing to continue with their lessons via virtual classroom training (the UK CAA has removed the requirement for mandatory classroom attendance), which the vast majority of schools have introduced since the pandemic broke. Those cadets who had progressed onto the flying training phases of their courses have no option but to wait the pandemic out, losing currency and momentum in the process. The larger concern for all cadets, however, is of course what state the marketplace will be in when they graduate.

With airlines starting to ask for bail-out packages [see the Flight Careers News section of this edition], speculation is rife about which airlines will fall victim to the pandemic and how long the airline industry will take to return to pre-pandemic levels. While the airline industry has plenty of prior experience in coping with pandemics and other geopolitical issues (albeit on a lesser scale) and has tended to prove resilient to these types of adversities, it’s obvious that Covid-19 will mark the industry’s greatest peace-time recovery challenge to date. In the meantime, FTN understands that cadet enrolled on airline-mentored training programmes have not been left in the dark about their future careers, but that airlines have been contacting cadets individually to encourage them to stay positive and concentrate on their training.

Flight training organisations have also been supporting their cadets and aside from the near universal adoption of virtual classrooms, a number of other initiatives are starting to emerge, including graduate support packages.

Staying with the virtual classrooms for a moment, flight training organisation L3Harris told FTN: “The safety of cadets and instructors is our priority during this time however we’re also doing all we can to support our cadets training journey. Academy flight operations are paused in the UK, New Zealand and Portugal. We’re monitoring the situation daily and have strong plans in place to recommence operations as quickly as possible, once restrictions are lifted. Ground School training has continued shifting online from Monday 23 March. This has proved a new experience for the instructors and cadets but the feedback has been really positive.”

“Lessons have continued to run as normal, which has been good for keeping up a routine.”

An L3 Cadet added her impressions, which seem to be common amongst those currently in the ‘ground school’ phase of their training: “Lessons have continued to run as normal, which has been good for keeping up a routine. All of our tutors have made fantastic use of online lessons, especially in light of how quickly we all moved to studying from home.

“We have access to the study materials online, and the interactive tools allow us to participate, ask questions and almost feel as though we are back in the classroom – which has been great for morale!”

ATPL theoretical knowledge training specialist CATS, based at Luton Airport, had been busy working on a new virtual classroom initiative prior to pandemic outbreak, and launched their new training platform early April under the brand name CATS TV. Commenting on the new resource, CATS MD and Head of Training Dr Stuart Smith said: “It is encouraging to see how well the students have taken to this change in their training. The students are extremely happy that their aviation studies have not been hindered and are continuing to strive for their personal best. The system benefits all of our partner schools and satellites and students and is something that actually had been planned for years.

Other virtual reality initiatives include those of Cambridge-based VA Airline Training who took their latest open day online, having cancelled the ‘real’ open day which was due to take on 04 April, but will now be held virtually (on a date that had yet to be confirmed when we went to press). The ATO is also offering free graduate training by providing competency refresher training to graduates who finish an APS MCC training course after 01 March 2020 but who don’t get invited to an airline simulator assessment (due to the Covid-19 circumstances) within six months of their course completion date.

Skyborne Airline Academy is another ATO offering refresher training to support graduates in the event of delays in securing airline placements due to the virus outbreak. The ATO says that graduates will be provided with two hours of instructor-led training in Skyborne’s DA42 simulator, every three months. The academy says that it will also cover the cost and complete graduates’ first Instrument Rating (IR) revalidation (required one year after completing original IR). Additionally, when a graduate is called for selection by a partner airline, Skyborne will provide selection preparation training, which includes two hours flight instruction in the B737 MAX simulator.

Commenting on the new initiative, Lee Woodward, Skyborne CEO, said: “We want to ensure Skyborne is doing everything it can to help the aviation industry in this current uncertain phase. Only last week, we launched a package of support for former Flybe pilots to help them in their job search and to explore new possibilities in their aviation career [see page 11 of this edition]. Our Skills Continuation Training policy is designed to support graduates by helping them to maintain their skills and keep them fully prepared for airline selection, which will resume. Trainees entering our Integrated ATPL course today will be supported until the end of 2022.”

Oxford-based Leading Edge Aviation have also moved their Ground School operation to a 100% virtual environment. Dickie Hughes, Chief Theoretical Knowledge Instructor and Head of Ground School, said: “I’m delighted by both our students and instructors, they are taking the new challenges in their stride, continuing to work to the best of their abilities and support each other throughout this new and intense period. Our instructors have spent a great deal of time perfecting the use of the virtual technologies we have provided them and are able to take pride in their work and in watching their students thrive.”

At the time of writing, multinational company CAE (owner of UK ATO CAE Oxford) had been the first training school operator to announce measures to protect its financial position in the face of the pandemic, including furloughing 2,600 of its 10,500 employees and placing another 900 on a reduced work week. To mitigate the temporary lay-offs, CAE says that it has ceased all R&D investment and significantly reduced capital expenditure, including salary freezes for those employees not furloughed or put on reduced work rosters. The company is also developing an easy-to-manufacture ventilator to help in the global fight against Covid-19.

With a recession looming, students and potential students are starting to consider more carefully the financial strength of flight schools. Following the collapse of several high-profile flight schools in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the majority of large flight schools have some form of financial protection in place for their customers. Measures include retaining credit accruals and offering escrow accounts for customer deposits.

Back in 2012, the UK CAA published a guide for cadets, titled ‘Commercial Pilot Training – Protecting Your Investment’. Unable to find a copy on the CAA’s website, we asked the Authority if the guide was still available, but were informed that they had removed it during the last website revamp and hadn’t got around to updating it yet. FTN retains a copy of the original and the advice contained within it seems as pertinent today as it was back in 2012. The key recommendations the guide contains are:

  • Don’t pay all your training fees upfront, unless you have a credit protection scheme in place, such as an escrow account that drip feeds training funds to the school at certain stages during a training course.
  • For payments up to £30,000, pay by credit card, if possible, to receive the card issuer’s finance protection.
  • Consider entering into a credit agreement with your school, which enables the borrower to make a claim against their credit provider if the school fails to deliver the service.

At the time of writing (early April), it is anticipated that social distancing ‘lock down’ measures will persist in Europe for at least several weeks further. Even once full ‘lock down’ measures end, there is then expected to be only a gradual lifting of movement and activity restrictions. For practical purposes, the European GA fleet will probably remain grounded well into May. For now, the flight training industry can manage its enforced hibernation; maybe the greater challenge will be to accomplish the return to a ‘new normal’ once aircraft return to the skies.

Author: FTN Editor

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