Airspace under Threat: Pilots making Errors due to COVID

Serious pilot errors due to lack of flying currency from the reduced flight schedules caused by the COVID-situation are becoming a serious threat to flight safety. Alex Martinez Rivera explains.

Inactive pilots are having a hard time remembering procedures. Flying frequency and access to simulators are hard to obtain at the moment. Every airline has many pilots in this situation during the reduced flying schedule of the covid pandemic.

Pilot currency-challenges as a result of the pandemic. YouTube/RTE.

Hypothetical situations

An airline pilot’s time off since his last flight has been greater than 90 days. He or she is now no longer current to fly. Regulations require airline pilots to perform three takeoffs and landings (either in an airplane or in the simulator) within the past 90 days to remain current.

Airlines then have to send the pilot with the expired currency to simulator training to perform the required takeoffs and landings before he or she can go back to flying duty.

Even worse than the 90-day currency problem, when pilots are inactive for several months, their skills and proficiency seriously deteriorate!

The longer the absence from flying the longer and more detailed the recurrency simulator requirements get, from the one-day of takeoff and landing recurrency training in the simulator, up to a full-fledged airplane type training that can last two months.

Ground and air procedures require pilots to stay sharp and current on operational procedures. Procedures must be performed at an instant and without hesitation, yet in a methodical fashion. Lack of currency causes many pilots to have trouble with this, and frequent mistakes are being made.

Pilot errors turning downright scary during COVID

This isn’t some nightmare tale. It is happening every day in airspace everywhere. In the United States, it is downright scary!

For example, as reported by Anchorage Daily News:

  • One pilot forgets to disengage the parking brake to pull out of a gate, damaging part of the towing vehicle.
  • Pilot going around, performing an aborted landing three times because of a windy day.
  • And other situations caused by “rusty” pilots.

Lack of currency-induced pilot errors

There have been dozens of errors, mishaps and accidents reported. Pilots are out of practice because COVID has pushed air travel to an all-time low.

90-day take-off and landing requirement amendment

The Federal Aviation Administration has twice amended the currency-rules for pilots.

In September 2020 the FAA issued a 60-day grace period for those pilots who had already exceeded the 90-day takeoff and landing currency requirement, as described above. In December the FAA amended their rules again and issued an additional 30-day grace period.

If we add everything if a pilot hasn’t performed at least three takeoffs and three landings — either on a plane or in a simulator — in the previous 90 days. The pilot now has an additional 90 days grace period. 90 + 90 =180 days or six months without being behind a cockpit.

Are the FAA amendments creating a disaster?

Author’s Opinion

Personally, I want to believe that this isn’t the case.

However, by extending and amending its rules the FAA is creating a monster of its own making. The FAA is defending the decision of decreasing the simulator-time as the sim (simulator) is considered a focal point for the COVID virus. But, so is a real cockpit!

Solutions to keeping pilots current

Sure, there aren’t enough passengers to go around to keep the excess pilots flying.

So why not use the opportunity to keep the pilots current?

The airlines are already receiving money from the government, so why not create refresher courses in the cockpit?

Keep the pilots on a frequency that doesn’t let them forget their procedures.

If airlines and the FAA allow longer periods of time away from the cockpit between flights, the harder it will be to retain great pilots who can be available when the shortage of pilots do come.

If the FAA doesn’t change course, the errors will continue to climb, exasperating the need for great pilots who are current and sharp on procedures. The end result might be worse than what was originally prescribed.

On another note, why aren’t pilots and Air Traffic Controllers “essential workers” in receiving the vaccine? So what happened to that plan?

What do you think about the many pilot errors happening because of lack of currency from the reduced flying schedule as a result of COVID? Please let Alex know how you feel about his opinion below:

Captain Jetson news reporter and aviation analyst aviation analyst Alex Martinez Rivera
Alex Martinez Rivera

Alex Martinez Rivera is the Senior Aviation Contributor for Captain Jetson. Ask questions or connect with him about aviation, aerospace, business, or government via email, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

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