Qantas has flagged concerns that a number of its pilots are now making errors in routine operations following months of stand-downs and heavily reduced flight schedules.
According to a report by the Sydney Morning Herald, an internal memo sent to Qantas staff noted that mistakes to date have included “commencing take-off with [the] park brake set”, “misidentification of altitude as airspeed”, and “exterior inspection errors”.
The latter likely alludes to a recent incident in which a 787 was unable to retract its landing gear due to two gear pins that were missed during pre-flight inspections.
Qantas said in response it had anticipated the rustiness caused by long stand-downs and had pro-actively created a return-to-work program to bring its pilots back up to speed. “Safety is our number one priority, and all of the data shows that our pilots are coming back with the skills and confidence to do their job safely,” the business said.
The memo also described pre-departure “threats” such as switches in the cockpit being in the incorrect positions and not being picked up during pre-flight checklists, which can ultimately lead to “larger in-flight issues” after take-off.
Further, numerous instances of “continued unstable approaches” were noted. When investigated, Qantas found that crew were “looking back at the event and not realising that they were overloaded or had lost situational awareness”.
In the memo, Qantas head of fleet operations Alex Scamps said that the COVID-19 pandemic has “created a situation where expert pilots have lost recency and experienced a subsequent reduction in cognitive capacity”.
“Combined with reduced flying across the network, we recognise a flow-on effect for flight crew’s focus and familiarity with the operation,” he said. “Routine items that used to be completed with a minimum of effort now occupy more time and divert attention away from flying the aircraft.”
A Qantas spokesperson said, “Airlines around the world are working through the complex process of returning to pre-COVID operations, including bringing back pilots who experienced extended periods on the ground.
“We recognised very early that we needed to think differently about pilot recency, currency and re-familiarisation programs, and so we designed an enhanced return-to-work program fit for the unprecedented challenge facing our industry.”
Over the last two years, the industry has been warned a number of times of the risks posed by out-of-practice pilots and other aviation professionals, off the back of prolonged periods without flying.
In December 2020, Bloomberg released a report that highlighted the risks posed by pilots that have spent months grounded, and then jump back into the cockpit without proper retraining.
Around the same time, the International Air Transport Association revealed it had already seen a sharp rise in the number of “unstabilised” or otherwise poorly handled approaches seen throughout 2020.
Such instances can result in hard landings, runway overshoots, or even crashes.
In September 2020, a Lion Air flight carrying 307 passengers and 11 crew veered off the runway shortly after landing in Medan, sparking investigation by Indonesia’s transport safety regulator.
The investigation found that the pilot had flown fewer than three hours in total within the previous 90 days, and the first officer had not flown at all since 1 February. Luckily, no one was injured in the runway incident.
Dr Brett Molesworth, associate Professor of UNSW Science’s School of Aviation, said it is “highly unlikely” that a pilot would merely forget how to operate an aircraft, even after an extended break from flying.
“But a pilot may forget an action or a procedure as part of a sequence,” Dr Molesworth said. “For example, they might forget to release the park brake before push-back from the gate or forget to turn on the anti-icing mechanism at a particular altitude.
“It is also possible that proficiency of fine motor skills might be affected, such as the ability to make quick and accurate control column adjustments during a crosswind landing.
“There have already been examples of this reported in the US during the pandemic. Performance will also be slower than before being stood down.”
Aviation safety consultant Mohan Ranganathan said it’s important for pilots to re-familiarise themselves with flying operations through retraining programs and getting back into the simulator.
“Regular flying keeps your mind in the cockpit,” he said.
“Being away from flying for such a long time brings in some complacency. Add loss of income, uncertainty about jobs or the future of the airline, that brings in additional stress. With an increase in stress levels, proficiency drops.”
Meanwhile, International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations representative Peter Meiresonne has said the pilots need to make an “honest assessment” of their skills and confidence upon re-entering the workforce, and not take any unnecessary risks.
For example, Meiresonne said that pilots may need to turn down offers like shorter landing approaches from air traffic control, if they do not feel ready to complete such tasks.
“Maybe now is a good time to say, ‘We are not able today’ or ‘Give us a six- or 10-mile lineup rather than a four-mile lineup’, which you might accept when you are more proficient and (flight experience is) more recent,” he said.