The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting aviation in many ways, causing unanticipated in-flight issues as well as problems for aviation workers on the ground.
“Many COVID-19−induced changes are predictable,” the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) said in the June 2020 issue of its Callback newsletter. “Contamination and disinfecting problems, scarcity of supplies, the lack of relevant procedures and other difficulties posed by social distancing appear obvious. Not so evident are complications rooted in the obvious but discovered only as one problem begets another.”1
In the newsletter, ASRS, a confidential incident-reporting system, cited “unanticipated side effects of operating equipment in an unfamiliar manner as the result of an individual or industry response to combat the virus.”
ASRS said that the decline in air traffic has been accompanied by a decline in ASRS reporting, although pilots, air traffic controllers, maintenance personnel and others have been filing COVID-related reports for several months. More such reports are expected in the future, ASRS said.2
Callback cited several of the early reports, including one filed by an air carrier captain who worried about a “lack of alertness” associated with flying during the pandemic.
The captain ─ who, like the air carrier and airport, was not identified in the report by name3 ─ wrote that his or her crew accepted a takeoff clearance even though the air traffic controller had called them by the wrong call sign.
“Nobody else was in line or even within 300 yards of the runway,” the captain’s report to ASRS said. “ATC [air traffic control] issued a takeoff clearance for the runway, and the call sign was very similar to ours. My first officer (FO) accepted the clearance (reading back the correct call sign), and off we went. … There was no doubt in my mind that the clearance was intended for us, because we were the only ones there. … I still should have clarified it.”
The captain added that one factor in the event was “that all of us are becoming a little too complacent with (few) people on each flight and virtually no other traffic around us. … We are letting our guard down at a time when we can ill afford it.”
Surprises in Performance
Another air carrier captain described an event in which his airplane, carrying just four passengers, out-climbed its pressurization ability during an ascent to Flight Level (FL) 400 (approximately 40,000 ft). The captain, recalling a recent company communication about the possibility of exceeding the cabin pressure differential limitation during flights with few passengers, described asking the FO to reduce the 600 fpm climb rate. A “DIFF PRESS” warning message followed, and the crew followed quick reference handbook procedures to control the pressure differential.
“The recent pandemic has seen us carrying fewer and fewer passengers, and … we are seeing aircraft performance every day that we would have rarely seen,” the captain wrote. “As such, we are not conditioned to look at the climb rate of the aircraft in regard to the pressure differential. … I will pay more attention to reducing my rate of climb once above FL300 from now on.”
‘Rustiness’ on Approach
In another report, an air carrier captain expressed concern about the effects on pilot performance of infrequent flying during the pandemic.
The report, entered into the ASRS database but not included in Callback, described a flight for which the captain was paired with a new, low-time FO. The captain said that, because of the pandemic, he had flown very little in the days and weeks before the April event and that “with the inexperience of the FO and both of our currency issues, my brief then included the request that we definitely watch one another and work together as a team.”
The report said the flight “became somewhat challenging” as they approached the destination airport, which reported instrument meteorological conditions with an overcast and light rain and where they were given a vector to a “rarely conducted” RNAV approach.
Because of the vector, they were late intercepting the final approach, the report said.
“With a combination of being focused on the RNAV procedures, ATC communications (controller realized at the last minute that his vector had been poor), and, honestly, some rustiness on my part, I didn’t immediately recognize that we were high. … It worked out, but the approach and descent was obviously not as well conducted as either of us would have preferred.”
In a related report, the FO said he had “not flown much due to both my seniority/reserve status and the COVID-19 situation’s impact on our operations” and that, as a result, he experienced a “general feeling of rustiness and feeling more behind the jet than I was comfortable with.”
‘A Logistical Situation’
Another pilot blamed the pandemic for “a logistical situation developing at our destination that ultimately resulted in our being stuck at the destination without transportation.”
As the FO and the captain discussed the problem, the airplane was on approach, “passing through the descent point for the proper descent path,” the FO wrote in his report to ASRS. “Due to being focused on the conversation at hand, I was confused as to the state of the aircraft on the arrival,” the report said. “I had lost situational awareness to the fact the aircraft had already leveled at the bottom of the arrival and [I] assumed we still had more altitude to lose.”
Both crewmembers recognized the mistake and quickly returned the airplane to the correct altitude.
“The issue was completely my fault,” the FO’s report said. “I should not have initiated a descent without first confirming the state of the aircraft on the arrival. In the attempt to keep from getting high, I caused us to actually get too low. This is also a good reminder to deal with ground issues on the ground or in downtime during cruise, and not during the arrival or later phases of flight. …
“Going forward, coronavirus or not, I have to focus on the appropriate phase of flight and not get distracted by issues on the ground while in critical phases of flight, like the arrival.
The general aviation pilot of a multiengine airplane being flown on a training flight reported taking evasive action after a conflict with an airliner.
Because of light traffic associated with the pandemic, she had decided not to request flight following from air traffic control, she wrote, noting that the airliner was descending through a cloud layer that she had flown around, “and the jet speed was such that it must have emerged from the cloud layer during my momentary ‘heads down’ to get the frequencies at my destination. The encounter was rattling, and I can imagine the pilots of the jet making a colorful comment or two about general aviators.”
Pressure to Board
A report submitted by an air carrier’s flight attendant discussed company pressure to board the airplane early, although there were only two passengers.
“It is in our best interest to board passengers as late as possible right now,” the flight attendant wrote. “The longer people are on these planes, the more chance there is for them to contaminate the planes or us and vice versa. … We should be allowed to choose a boarding position that we feel is safe and appropriate.”
Air traffic controllers have experienced other pandemic-related issues.
For example, one controller ’s ASRS report explained the difficulty of operating in a position that required him her to run an “unusual configuration” of several combined sectors ─ an assignment that he presumed was a result of social distancing because of COVID-19.
He wrote of instructing a flight crew to climb to FL360 and realizing, when he attempted to switch the airplane to the adjacent center, that he had failed to coordinate the move with the controller responsible for that sector.
“Usually when the area is in the mid(shift) configuration, (my) airspace includes the above sector,” he wrote. “I speculate that this is why I assumed that I had FL360 in my sector when, in fact, I did not.”
Ground personnel had other concerns.
A report submitted by a wing walker challenged instructions from management at an unnamed airport to wear headsets that were shared by a number of workers.
“[They are] dirty and transferring germs to everyone wearing them,” the report said. “Why are we still wearing these headsets when we can be wearing our own personal headsets or hearing protection?”
A second wing walker’s report suggested a solution: “until this passes … use old-fashioned hand signals.”
An air carrier maintenance technician also questioned the availability of disinfected equipment. He submitted a report in April questioning his company’s failure to offer personal protective equipment (PPE) to maintenance personnel.
The technician told of requesting a face mask from an operating manager “during the COVID-19 pandemic while working over 15 … aircraft for the day.” He said he wanted the mask “regarding my health and safety since I will be aboard so many aircraft.”
The manager made two phone calls about the request and then, “he reluctantly gave me a mask from a stack of, at best, 20 face masks,” the report said.
The technician added, “We do not have an adequate amount of PPE face masks during this COVID-19 pandemic, and when requesting PPE, we are challenged.”
As of June 25, 9.5 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported worldwide, and more than 483,000 people have died of the virus, according to World Health Organization data.4
- NASA ASRS. “The COVID-19 Confrontation.” Callback Issue 485 (June 2020). https://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/publications/callback/cb_485.html
- Reports can be found by searching the ASRS database https://akama.arc.nasa.gov/ASRSDBOnline/QueryWizard_Filter.aspx for “covid.”
- Some information in ASRS reports, including names of operators and airports, is deidentified.
- WHO. Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019