Can socially-distanced flight training work?

Although commercial pilot flight training recommenced at a number of Approved Training Organisations (ATOs) in the UK towards the end of May, at the time of writing, flying clubs and PPL schools remain in lockdown. The message from UK Government is that it is too early to restart all forms of flight training just yet, but there is a glimmer of hope that July could see some return to the skies for flying schools and clubs.

As reported in our last edition, the first school to restart commercial pilot flight training was Leading Edge Aviation (LEAL) at Oxford Airport. The academy effectively led the way for the UK commercial flight training industry, instigating new procedures that would allow flying training to resume under a highly controlled environment, mitigating as far as reasonably possible the chances of their cadets and instructors becoming infected with COVID-19 at the academy.

LEAL effectively provided the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) with a turn-key solution, not by requesting approval for flying training resumption, but by giving the Authority confidence in providing the school with a letter of no objection.

On Friday 15 May, the Department for Transport (DfT) issued updated guidance for the flight training community, stating that it was too early for flying training to resume. This advice apparently contradicted the CAA’s ‘no objection’ ruling on LEAL’s return to flying training, leading to confusion as to what the real message was.

FTN contacted the DfT on 15 May to ask for clarification and we were told: “Organisations are allowed to conduct training in this sector because commercial pilots/crews are viewed as ‘critical workers’ and are needed to maintain cargo and repatriation flights, and other essential aviation transport services. We have adopted a similar approach to the operation of driving schools where lessons and tests continue to be allowed for critical workers, but are suspended for all other candidates.

“…this permission does not extend to instructional flight for pilots pursuing a General Aviation licence for recreational purposes, shared recreational flights (other than with another member of the pilot’s household), or to other aviation activities sold on a commercial basis such as experience flights in vintage aircraft. However, the Government is keeping the situation under review and we will provide updated guidance as and when adjustments to social-distancing measures allow the current restrictions on these activities to be altered or lifted.”

The definition of a commercial pilot cadet as a ‘critical worker’ was met with some scepticism by the wider flight training community, given that the majority of these cadets wouldn’t be able to provide any form of assistance to the transport sector until they have graduated and gained their first flying jobs. Nevertheless, as a step towards ‘unlocking’ the aviation training industry, the sector was grateful for the DfT’s decision.

The law underpinning the coronavirus lockdown measures is deliberately vague, insofar that the list of acceptable reasons for being outside of lockdown has never been exhaustive. Clearly it is impossible to envisage every scenario that might require someone to break their self-policed lockdown. This means that flying training – and indeed flying in general – has never been directly forbidden, but rather that the close-contact nature of the industry meant that it would have been impossible to adhere to wider social-distancing guidance. 

“…[the CAA] haven’t
stopped anyone from doing anything. The Government (DfT) is setting out what people can and can’t do based on the overall national COVID rules…”

The CAA has corroborated this, informing FTN that “…apart from suspending the bookings for our examiners doing exams we [the CAA] haven’t stopped anyone from doing anything. The Government (DfT) is setting out what people can and can’t do based on the overall national COVID rules… at the moment that precludes flight training… with the exception for commercial training as Government has said that is supporting COVID and national infrastructure – again a Government decision.”

Overall, the GA community has behaved honourably during the initial phase of the pandemic. APrt from one or two well-known instances flouting the guidance – such as the PC12 flight from Fairoaks Airport in Surrey to a military base in Anglesey, Wales, for a ‘day on the beach’ – GA activity has been all but absent from UK skies for around six weeks.

More recently, since 13 May onwards, some sports were permitted to restart and this included recreational flying. This meant that solo flying was allowed to resume, as was flying with passengers, subject to them being members of the same self-isolating household. On 04 June, the DfT then updated their guidance and added flights in aircraft where social distancing measures can be maintained, such as tandem cockpits spaced by more than two metres, or occupancy of separate parts of the aircraft structure. This meant that businesses such as the Boultbee Spitfire Academy were permitted to restart operations. But the message for the PPL flying training community remained the same – if you can’t achieve two metres separation for your staff and customers then you need to remain closed.

The DfT, CAA and a number of industry associations have been meeting ‘virtually’ on a weekly basis to discuss when and how all forms of GA activity, including flight training, can resume. FTN understands that these meetings have directly influenced DfT guidance, as well as the return-to-work advice that the CAA has been publishing over the last few weeks.

…similar close-contact industries – such as driving instruction and hairdressers – are expecting to resume in early July

While it has not been possible to ascertain exactly when DfT will permit resumption of PPL training, the fact that similar close-contact industries such as driving instruction and hairdressers are apparently to be given the green light to resume early July, subject to the UK retaining a low national COVID-19 reinfection rate. There seems to be no reason why flying training will not be afforded the same timeline, but this has yet to be officially confirmed.

As the resumption of flying training nears, there is a concern amongst some schools, however, that without some form of regulator protection, businesses could be subject to liability claims should employees or customers become infected with coronavirus as a result of their interaction at a flying school/club. 

“My proposition is that the industry should have available a universally adopted contract with our customers”

Martin Jones, MD of Derby Aero Club and Flying School, and owner of Derby Airfield, contacted the DfT in early June, asking Government to create an indemnity template that the flight training industry can use to avoid being held liable for customers or employees contracting COVID-19 as a direct result of interaction at a flying school.

He wrote: “I am most anxious to have available a form of ‘consent and waiver’ to provide some measure of insulation from potential claims for us as a DTO, aerodrome owner and operator.

“My proposition is that the industry should have available a universally adopted contract with our customers that makes a declaration that the customer has no symptoms, has not been in contact with a sufferer within 14 days (or has recently been tested negative), that acknowledges that due diligence has been upheld with ‘good housekeeping practice’ and crucially confirms that we have no liability for risk of subsequent infection.

“Such a contract needs to be drafted by a solicitor and that this contract be paid from the DfT airfield development fund announced earlier this year for the common good.”

FTN has seen the DfT’s response to Martin’s letter, and it would seem that Government, while sympathetic to the concern, is not prepared to engage on this and that industry needs to find its own way of protecting itself from liability claims.

Martin Jones is not alone in his request for some form of liability protection – at least one commercial training school has decided not to resume training yet, on the basis that without direct liability support from the DfT or CAA then they fear that their legal risk exposure is too high.

Another factor that is starting to emerge is the appetite (or lack of) some PPL instructors have in returning to work. Many instructors in the PPL training industry do not do it as a primary source of income, but rather for the love of it. A not inconsiderable proportion of PPL instructors within the industry are retired commercial pilots, who have become PPL instructors purely on the basis of wanting to give something back to an industry that has given them a fulfilling career. As retirees, some fall into the higher COVID-19 risk category themselves, or live with partners who have a high vulnerability, and so their appetite to continue training the next generation of pilots has understandably diminished following the coronavirus outbreak. A similar consideration is may occupy the minds of those trainees who are in a similar position – those who have retired and who are only training towards their PPLs with no intention of holding a commercial licence.

If, as is predicted, grass roots flying training can resume in July then it could be that uptake is significantly reduced compare to where it was before the pandemic broke. In the meantime, for those who simply cannot wait to progress their PPL training, we understand that the Boultbee Spitfire Academy is up and running again at Goodwood and Lee on Solent airfields and that one could undertake PPL training with them in a socially-distanced rear cockpit of a Spitfire. The only minor issue is that the price would be somewhat higher than if undertaken in a modern trainer. FTN understands that circa £250,000.00 should cover a PPL course in a Spitfire.

Author: Rob Hall

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