Return to the Skies: 4 Aviation Risk Areas to Review as We Return to Pre-Pandemic Flight Levels

By: | January 23, 2022

Ernest DeSpain is the Senior Vice President for U.S. Insurance Aviation at Sompo International. He can be reached at [email protected]

The pandemic may not yet be fully behind us, but the aviation industry is getting closer to pre-pandemic rates with every month that passes.

General aviation was back to operating at 80-90% capacity as of June of 2021, with personal and charter flights at or over 90%. The airline and tourism segments remain a bit further behind, with tourism still struggling below a 50-60% rate of return, but even these segments have been on an upswing.

Flight activity was increasing on a weekly basis prior to the arrival of the Omicron variant. Though the industry may temporarily see challenges as new or additional restrictions may be mandated in the short term, it is safe to assume that flight activity will only continue to rise as the current spike subsides.

This is clearly positive news.

But as consumer confidence grows and people begin traveling more, there are several unique risk management challenges that may arise. Here’s a list of factors our aviation underwriters are watching closely as their clients return to the skies.

1) A Question of Pilot Proficiency

The biggest risk currently facing the aviation industry is a lack of pilot proficiency.

In the last several months alone, there have been 128 self-reported incidents recorded. Fortunately, none of these resulted in accident or violation, but in all cases, the pilots reporting errors indicated that they did not feel proficient.

Major incidents reported by the FAA include a Boeing 737 attempting to take off with one engine after the pilot failed to start the second engine, a flight that took off and went the wrong direction, and a pilot that failed to put down landing gear when bringing a Boeing 737 in for landing.

To address this gap in pilot proficiency, it is essential to go back and do recurrent training.

Simulators are excellent tools, but nothing replaces real life experience; pilots simply must log the miles in the air to re-develop the muscle memory to respond appropriately when issues occur during flight.

From a risk management point of view, airlines are advised to be thoughtful about placing crews, pairing a pilot who is current with recurrent training with one just coming back. It’s instant reactions that matter the most in aviation, and it will take time to build back muscle memory for pilots who have been furloughed for 7-18 months.

Because pilot training is done in close quarters (less than 6 feet apart in a cockpit/simulator), we are seeing an increase in requests to extend the insurance-imposed training requirement intervals.

Individual pilots who are concerned with COVID are looking to avoid those environments that could potentially expose them. These requests should be carefully weighed; while the seriousness of the effects of COVID are real, so are the dangers of the lack of proficiency in aviation.

2) Increased Aircraft Maintenance Concerns

Just as pilots need to get back up to speed, so do the aircraft they operate.

During the pandemic, many airlines put a portion of their fleets into long-term storage. As they now look to bring these aircraft back into service, it’s important to consider whether these planes are ready and capable of operating as frequently as they had previously done.

There’s no precedence for issues that could arise without the constant maintenance that was a part of normal processing pre-pandemic.

Given these unknowns, it is essential to drive home to both pilots and maintenance crews a need for constant vigilance.

When following the protocol for bringing aircraft back from long term storage, employees must not be complacent in their jobs. Bearing the unusual circumstances of this transition in mind, the entire industry needs to be alert to issues, both anticipated and unanticipated.

3) Fixed-Base Operators Face Staffing and Training Challenges

The airfields where aircraft are parked, fueled and maintained, known as Fixed-Base Operators (FBOs), are also challenged by current circumstances.

Increased travel has led to the presence of more aircraft on these airfields, which may not be prepared to meet the needs. Staffing issues, including difficulties with hiring and training challenges, have also led to an uptick in damages.

A recent fueling incident, in which a newer employee placed fuel into the wrong aircraft and this improper fueling led to a crash, is just one such example.

FBOs can go from five aircraft on ramp to 25 during the busy travel season, and with the value of these crafts ranging from $1 million to $75 million, mistakes can be costly.

Again, vigilance is key. Best practices for these facilities include using multiple wing walkers when moving aircraft to avoid ground collision and implementing a recurring training program for new and returning employees alike. There are training videos and other resources available to facilitate employee education and reinforce a culture of safety.

4) Considerations for Aviation Customers

Many corporations pulled back employee travel coverage during the pandemic, and as employees return to travel, travel policies may need to be updated.

From coverage for non-owned aircraft to policies for the use of personal aircraft, canceled policies may need to be reinstated and coverage needs reassessed.

This is a good time for HR to update your company’s risk management view of aviation exposure, looking to see what was dropped, what has changed, and what may be necessary going forward.

As passengers, employees resuming business travel should be reminded they also have a role to play. Pilots and other airline workers are already in a stressful situation for reasons detailed above, and passengers should be reducing, rather than contributing to, that stress.

Have vaccinations completed and documentation available, wear masks and distance as mandated, and practice patience. There have been too many incidents at airports with unruly passengers of late, and this distracts pilots and creates undue stress for all involved.

Proactively Mitigating the Risks Is Key

Even as things start to look a bit more normal, the aviation industry realistically faces several years of challenges before we completely cycle out of this pandemic period.

A continuing increase in travel until we reach pre-COVID capacity will bring an ongoing need for frequent recurrent training and revisiting of policies. As new employees take time to get up to speed, things will get better, but full proficiency will take a while to catch up and cycle through.

From an underwriting perspective, carriers will be looking at pilot proficiency and requiring training as needed to make sure they are in a safer spot, but more may be requested, both in terms of general proficiency and to address newer concerns such as de-escalation training.

In terms of the aircraft themselves, demonstrated airworthiness and a record of maintenance will be essential. And on airfields, training and safety best practices are more important now than ever.

Ultimately, when it comes to aviation risk management, the human factor is the key. From pilots to workers to passengers, we all have a role to play in ensuring a safe passage back to normal for the aviation industry. &

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