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Airworthiness Amidst the COVID-19 Crisis


The COVID-19 outbreak has brought the entire world to a standstill in a matter of mere months. The new virus has had a profoundly negative effect on many major economic sectors. The air travel industry felt the ramifications of the looming pandemic even before the World Health Organization (WHO) gave the outbreak that status. For example, by March 22, 2020, European airline traffic had decreased by 88% compared to the figures a year ago. In some countries where the pandemic was especially poorly managed, such as Italy, the decline amounted to 98% (Mazareanu 2020). Worldwide, during the first half of 2020, 1.2 billion passengers abstained from flying, reducing the global airline capacity and leaving staff and aircraft out of work (Mazareanu 2020). The situation gives rise to several problems at once: safety issues onboard, preservation of aircraft, and recency maintenance for pilots (PIC) and co-pilots. This paper overviews measures that have been proposed and implemented in the UAE and worldwide critically evaluates them and gives recommendations on how to make a mass return to operations smoother.

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Existing regulations in the UAE and worldwide

Preservation of Aircraft

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) (2020) reports that the drop in international airline activity leads to the grounding of at least two-thirds of all aircraft, which makes the problem of its maintenance and preservation especially acute. For example, on March 25, 2020, Dubai-based airline operator Emirates announced that it was grounding most of its fleet to ensure the viability of business (Quann 2020). The IATA (2020) defines different types of aircraft grounding, each of which requires its own measures for ensuring airworthiness:

  1. normal parking means that the aircraft is grounded between flights or maintenance events for a period of time ranging from a few hours to a few days. The aircraft is ready-to-fly with some minimal servicing tasks, such as refueling. Normal parking does not require any specific maintenance, safe for maybe checking tire pressure, removing safety pins, and protecting covers plugs if installed;
  2. active (short-term) parking is the type of parking with a duration exceeding a few days but no longer than a few weeks. The aircraft is on the ground, out of operations, and is not there for any planned maintenance event as part of the OMP. Active (short-term) parking implies the installation of safety pins, covers, and plugs; the preservation work is kept to a minimum or limited. Maintenance is done on a weekly basis and typically includes APU and engine runs. As per the IATA’s (2020) estimations, active parking does not guarantee an immediate return to operations but makes them possible within one day;
  3. prolonged (long-term) parking is similar to active (short-term parking) in the sense that the aircraft is on the ground, out of operation, and is not undergoing any planned maintenance tasks. However, the duration of prolonged (long-term) parking exceeds a few weeks and may reach a few months. The IATA’s (2020) guidelines for this type of parking include the installation of safety pins, covers, and plugs as well as basic preservation work, which may comprise extensive landing gear lubrication and APU/engine fuel circuit. There is a possibility for the removal of LRUS (e.g. engines and APU batteries). Yet, the aircraft technical team is prescribed to keep the configuration intact. With prolonged parking, a return to operations on short notice is not possible;
  4. storage implies the grounding of aircraft for a period in excess of three-six months. The majority of the aircraft systems are in the preserved status, and some parts, such as batteries, oxygen bottles, fire bottles, APU, engines, are removed. To return to operations, the aircraft would need advanced notice.

Crew Licenses to Maintain Recency

Under regulations, pilots are obliged to maintain their recency to be eligible for work on air crafts. Leading global institutions, such as the EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) and the (ICAO) International Civil Aviation Organization prohibit pilots from operating aircraft as Pilot in Command (PIC) or co-pilot unless one of them has had three take-offs and three landings in the last few days. However, because of the COVID-19 outbreak, operators are likely to have differences in complying with the restrictions due to a reduced number of flight operations. Many pilots have not had a chance to operate an aircraft in either of the two roles in the last three months, making them ineligible for assignment once the industry returns to operations. For this reason, there is a need for some concessions regarding recency maintenance to make sure that the needed number of employees will get back to their duties immediately.

On April 16, 2020, the ICAO (2020) published the Quick Reference Guidance explaining alleviation for recent experience requirements. The new regulation allows operators to assign pilots as PICs or co-pilots even if they do not meet the standards by lowering the number of required take-offs, approaches, and landings or extending the applicable period (90 days). Pilots will be clustered into three groups: (1) fully recent (3 TO/LDG in the last 90 days); (2) partially recent (1 or 2 TO/LDG in the last 90 days); (3) not recent (no TO/LDG in the last 90 days) (ICAO 2020). According to the ICAO, aircraft and passenger safety will be ensured by pairing recent pilots with partially recent/ not recent pilots. By following these schemes, the latter will gain the necessary experience and soon become fully recent.

OEM Recommendations Aircraft Types Used in Airlines

The IATA (2020) strongly advises operators to keep up to date with the relevant aircraft type information spread by the respective aircraft OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers). The IATA (2020) also warns operators about the existing dependencies between the tasks and the chances that additional requirements may arise at the time the aircraft will be ready to return to service. The most recent guidelines include information on nine domains described below. As per the IATA’s recommendations, airlines should pay attention to OEM-suggested recency conditions before returning to service.

  1. Electrical and avionics. Prolonged parking or storage (see above for definitions) requires control switches set to “off”, battery check before de-energizing the aircraft, inactivating avionics LRU based on parking/storage environmental conditions, capping disconnected electrical connectors;
  2. Flight control includes cleaning all surfaces and keeping them free of corrosion, lubrication and protective coating (if needed), setting controls and flight control surfaces to neutral/stowed, regular power-ups of electric and hydraulic systems;
  3. Engines and APU require installation of exhaust plugs and covers, regular engine shaft rotation and cranking (should comply with the OEM suggested engine run profile), engine fuel system conservation, APU start and operation on a regular basis, and other tasks;
  4. Landing gear, wheels, and tires need maintenance in the form of safety pins, chock wheels, and protective covers. The technical team is advised to lubricate landing gear and landing gear doors, use compounds to prevent corrosion to all bare metal parts, check tire pressure and landing shock absorbers’ extension and nitrogen pressure;
  5. Interiors should be free from trash/ debris, which requires the cleaning of galleys, water closets, cabins, cabin seats, and carpets. Additionally, the environmental humidity inside the aircraft should not exceed 70%, and seats and carpets should be regularly checked for moisture and mildew;
  6. Fuel. The technical team needs to ensure that for the entirety of the parking period, a fuel quantity of at least 10% of the tank capacity should be maintained. If refueling is needed for the completion of a specific maintenance task, then the airline needs to make sure that the removed fuel is used in an expeditious manner. The IATA (2020) strongly recommends its reuse for fueling the same aircraft or another aircraft owned by the airline. It is critical to carry out fuel sampling analysis for microbiological contamination of tanks from time to time. If such contamination is found, biocidal treatment of fuel tanks is advised;
  7. Environmental Control Service (ECS) may still be in use during prolonged parking or storage periods. They are used for maintaining air circulation in the cabin keeping the humidity level below 70%. External air inlets and outlets require adequate protection in the form of plugs and covers;
  8. Hydraulics are needed for carrying out some maintenance tasks, which is why they should be kept in operation during parking/ storage. The IATA (2020) prescribes regular checks for hydraulic system leaks and cleaning of hydraulic actuator rods in case they come into contact with the ambient environment;
  9. Air data probes require adequate protection in the form of covers and plugs. A smooth return to service includes removal of all covers and plugs, a thorough inspection of all probes and sectors, functional checks, and contamination removal.

The Existing Aviation Ecosystem and Advice on Necessary Changes

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the entire aviation ecosystem. While in 2019, the world’s airlines saw record profits, it is projected that by the end of 2020, they will have lost $84.3 billion (Herman & Arshad 2020). However, it is not just airlines that are losing due to the outbreak but also original equipment manufacturers, lessors, governments as well as maintenance, repair, and operations providers, airports, and the entire duty-free industry (Herman & Arshad 2020). The IATA’s CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, called the ongoing situation with the airlines’ cashflow “apocalyptic” and concluded that the entire industry will be fundamentally changed after the pandemic is over. Indeed, financial strain is likely to inform top players’ decisions and shape the future of the aviation ecosystem. Aside from that, the ecosystem is impacted by changing consumer behavior patterns that also need to be taken into consideration.

According to Herman and Arshad (2020), some themes in particular are going to define the future of the sector. First and foremost, the survival of airlines is likely to depend on their access to state aid. For example, Air Arabia is currently negotiating with the Emirati government with regard to a possible financial aid package (ch-aviation 2020). Between January and September 2020, the airline had lost AED212.5 million dirhams (USD57.86 million). In contrast, Air Arabia made AED791 million profit within the same period a year ago (ch-aviation 2020). A fellow carrier, Etihad Airways, saw a loss of USD758 million between January and June. Both carriers are hoping to receive government support to recover from the detrimental impact of the pandemic.

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It is unclear whether the size of the airline will determine its chances to become a beneficiary, though companies that are “too big to fail” will probably be in a better position (Herman & Arshad 2020). Governments may also pick airlines that are “too important to fail,” and in this case, these may as well be minor domestic carriers. Regardless of the criteria for selection, one fact that should be considered is that state aid typically comes with strings attached. Airlines that became beneficiaries of government subsidies may suffer from less flexibility due to repayment terms and deferred taxes (Herman & Arshad 2020). In addition, state aid may mean more government control and conditions that will impose further limitations on airlines’ operations. Enhanced antitrust scrutiny and limited mergers and acquisitions that involve foreign investment may as well be some of the consequences.

Another unfavorable possibility for the airline industry is a decrease in demand for flights even after the pandemic ends. Jon Ostrower, the editor-in-chief of The Air Current, and Courtney Miller, managing director of analysis for The Air Current, argue that the Covid-19 outbreak has already reshaped the business environment (Harrel 2020). People are becoming habituated to online business meetings through platforms like Zoom and Skype as opposed to seeing each other in person. Ostrower and Miller predict that while business travel may resume, the number of people flying may still be down (Harrel 2020). Companies are likely to optimize their expenses and schedule only meetings of higher importance in person while others will take place online. As Harrel (2020) concluded, this new customer behavior pattern may lead to lower demand for flights and, as a result, more aircraft staying out of operation for indefinite periods of time.

Critical Analysis/ Evaluation

While the international institutions have exerted a significant effort to mitigate the harmful impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, there may still be some gaps in the updated policies. The previous sections elaborated on the possible preservation statuses for the aircraft and measures that are needed for implementing each one of them. However, the question remains as to how airlines should decide which status to choose. At the moment, the IATA (2020) has a list of elements to consider. For instance, airlines are recommended to gauge the lift capacity of the fleet that is projected to be in demand in the next three months, six months, and one year. Another consideration that the IATA (2020) advises making is the “material, organizational, technical, logistic and commercial” resources required to support the fleet in view. While these are valid recommendations, any predictions and attempts at cost-benefit analyses are likely to be compromised by uncertainty.

The fleet size movement toward parking and storage due to the COVID-19 is unprecedented. It has highlighted numerous issues that made airline technical teams embark on a steep learning curve. Even though the new guidelines cover a lot of specifics of parking and storage with the purpose of preserving aircraft, there are still some details that may not be given enough attention. The IATA (2020) has collected and turned such occurrences into a special section in its guides under the title “Lessons Learned.” For instance, it was discovered that in some regions, high environmental humidity dictated its own rules on the frequency of running the aircraft air conditioning packs (IATA 2020). Another discovery was that the completion of specific maintenance tasks may not be possible due to the limited capabilities of a given aircraft parking location. To meet the requirements, a relocation flight may be needed (IATA 2020). While institutions, such as the IATA, make everything possible to extend their guides, it is challenging to take all issues into consideration and communicate them on time.

Recency maintenance alleviations make sense on paper, but in practice, their implementation may expose some weaknesses. It is said that while partially recent and not fully recent pilots may return to their duties, they need to be paired with fully recent specialists. This means that no less than half of all pilots need to have had recent experiences with takeoffs and landings. Aviation Voice (2020) argues that a lot of airlines will settle on the more cost-effective option which is to send their pilots to training centers with full flight simulators (FFS). According to the source, this may lead to the overbooking of training centers and extended wait times, depending on the number and general accessibility of such facilities in a given country (Aviation Voice 2020). For this reason, staff’s return to service needs to be planned well in advance.

Conclusion and Recommendations

At present, the airline industry is facing probably the biggest crisis in its history of existence. With the reduced number of flights, a significant share of aircraft and crew remain out of operation, which raises difficult questions of maintenance and preservation. Quite a big hurdle to making any plans is uncertainty. Just a couple of months ago, the hope for a speedy recovery from the pandemic was on the horizon, but the second wave of disease has muddled the picture. Airlines will face even more difficulties deciding on parking and storage options and seizing flight opportunities to maintain at least some operational capacity. Allan and Arun (2020) that big data analysis may help companies make more intelligent decisions based on data-informed predictions. They also note that it is in a time like this that cooperation and collaboration will provide the most value. Airlines will need to be in constant exchange with each other to navigate the new environment and mitigate risks.

The same applies to following the new guidelines and recommendations issued by the IATA, the IAC, and other institutions. While they cover a lot of aspects regarding aircraft preservation and airworthiness, the authors admit that they are unable to foresee all the issues that may arise from prolonged parking or storage. In this case, airlines need to become great communicators and report problems so that others could take preventive measures. Communication may be useful for training crew and renewing its licenses as well. Aviation Voice (2020) predicts training center shortages, which is why much scrutiny, planning, and cooperation are needed to streamline the process and make sure that as many pilots as possible obtain access. Technology may once again prove to be the solution to excessive booking by offering a distributed system with transparency and visibility.

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Reference List

Allan B & Arun, N 2020, ‘Aviation maintenance and Covid-19’, Aircraft IT.

Aviation Voice 2020, Pilot’s recency: two possible scenarios after aviation takes off.

ch-aviation 2020, UAE’s Air Arabia applies for state aid.

Harrel E 2020, ‘Looking to the future of air travel’, Harvard Business Review.

Herman, M & Arshad, A 2020, ‘How COVID-19 may change long-term aviation outlook’, Lexology.

IATA 2020, Guidance for managing aircraft airworthiness for operations during and post pandemic.

ICAO 2020, Quick Reference Guidance.

Mazareanu, E 2020, Coronavirus: impact on the aviation industry worldwide – statistics & facts.

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Quann, J 2020, ‘Covid-19: Emirates airline to ground the entire fleet’, News Talk.

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