MIAMI – Airlines have faced a monumental challenge throughout the pandemic as travel halted and capacity restrictions rose. Now, as COVID-19 continues to decline, operations are starting to recover, but the path ahead is still long and uncertain. The return to service carries several challenges of its own.
At the height of the pandemic, 62% of the world’s planes were grounded, and many remain that way. The months spent in storage have taken their toll both on these aircraft and the workers who staff them. As airlines begin operating at more normal levels, they must overcome numerous obstacles related to this extended period of inactivity.
Here’s a closer look at five of these issues and how airlines can mitigate them.
Grounded Aircraft Maintenance
The most prominent issue with grounded planes’ return to service is maintenance. While these aircraft may not have the usage-related maintenance needs that planes in operation do, sitting idle on the tarmac creates other problems. Airlines will have to perform extensive checks and possible repairs on these planes before they can fly again.
Since air travel demand dropped so drastically amid the pandemic, hangar space quickly became limited. Consequently, many airlines parked unused planes in remote deserts, leaving them exposed to the elements. These non-climate-controlled, uncovered environments could have accelerated aircraft deterioration through direct sunlight, rain, dust accumulation, and more.
Insect infestations are another concern with so many planes sitting outside of the safety of hangars. Insects have caused considerable problems for aircraft in the past, such as wasps building nests inside pitot tubes, sometimes causing crashes. Airlines may have to check their aircraft for any insects, possibly having to clear them of these pests.
Since these maintenance concerns could affect passenger safety, airlines can’t overlook them. When returning planes to service, they’ll have to account to spend considerable time and money on ensuring their aircraft are in flying condition.
Another challenge with airlines operating at reduced capacity is that crews may be out of practice. As pilots begin to fly more frequently or in different aircraft, this rustiness could lead to operational errors. This isn’t a hypothetical issue, either. At least a dozen pilots and first officers have already cited making mistakes after up to four months without flying.
Flight attendants may also be out of practice from a dramatic drop in flying time. While their errors may not be matters of passenger safety, they could harm an airline’s image. Already struggling airlines can’t afford a declining public image from a crew that appears inexperienced.
The answer to this challenge is to provide refresher training for all employees before they fly more regularly. Since OSHA requires businesses with 11 or more employees to have a reviewable emergency action plan, that should include going over emergency procedures.
A lack of practice isn’t the only employment issue facing airlines returning to regular service. Early in the pandemic, many airlines had to lay off employees to conserve money amid plummeting demand. Now that air travel is beginning to ramp up again, they can’t always find enough pilots to sustain pre-pandemic levels of business.
American Airlines, for example, had to cancel hundreds of flights in one weekend partly due to labor shortages. If airlines can’t rehire laid-off pilots, they’ll have to promote training programs to hire and train new ones. While high wages and competitive benefits may help attract new workers, the extensive training needs will mean it will take time before these pilots are ready.
Delta has committed to hiring 1,000 new pilots in the next year, and United has launched new financing options for its pilot training program. Efforts like these will help, but airlines may have to reduce their flights to avoid cancellations in the meantime.
Many airlines are anxious to start operating at pre-pandemic levels to make up for a year of losses. Unfortunately, the return to service will come with high costs, which will seem higher after COVID’s financial strain. As a result, the road to recovery may be longer and slower than airlines would prefer.
The extensive maintenance many grounded planes need will likely be expensive. Consequently, airlines may not be able to return these aircraft to flying conditions all at once. Airlines also face volatility in oil prices, which could incur high costs as they use more fuel from more frequent flying.
Article written by technology journalist Emily Newton. She is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations. Featured image: Dubai Airport Panorama. Photo: Dubai Airports Media.