With the start of the coronavirus crisis, sweeping travel restrictions were imposed worldwide. These debilitated the airlines severely. In addition to revenue losses, the air carriers faced a new and expensive challenge – keeping the grounded planes airworthy. Here is a look at how they are coping.
Maintenance of grounded aircraft
Planes are meant to fly, not to be parked indefinitely. Planes parked on the tarmac and in hangars deteriorate faster than planes in regular use. While these aircraft are in storage, they must undergo rigorous maintenance. According to Qantas, all aircraft need to have their wheels rotated. This is done by towing them on the tarmac or by jacking them. The airlines do this every week or 2. Hydraulic fluid helps protect landing gear from rust. Giant silica moisture absorption sachets are inserted inside the engines to keep them dry. The pitot tube at the front of every plane is among the most sensitive parts. The external holes on the fuselage are covered to block insects and nesting birds.
The hangars are full, so the only place to park airplanes at most airports is on the taxiways. Moisture is a constant enemy of airframes. Manufacturers say arid conditions, as in deserts, are preferable for storing planes. It is easier to protect against corrosion in such areas. The grounded planes parked at major airports and near airfields are accessible to service technicians for necessary maintenance. However, many aircraft are parked far from the easy reach of airline personnel.
What this means for airlines
Airlines are not doing well. Air Canada stated in its annual report that its total revenue for 2020 dropped by 70% from the previous year. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) published a forecast for a global loss of revenue amounting to CAD 144 billion. As a result, airlines have been forced to take cost-cutting measures across the board. One of these measures includes retiring older aircraft earlier than planned. An example is the A340, which has been prematurely retired by major airlines like Lufthansa and Iberia.
Other measures include furloughing the crew and grounding entire fleets. Carriers such as Easy Jet and Australian Airlines have done this. Air Canada was forced to cut 20,000 jobs in 2020. In January, the airline announced a cut of another 1,900 jobs. In 2021 Q1, the airline will operate at merely 20% capacity. Many of the airline personnel in Canada are migrant workers. These ex-pat professionals must as remittances back to their home countries to support their families. It is a tough time for employers and employees alike. Air Canada has suspended services to many countries to eliminate fixed costs. It has retired aircraft such as the Airbus A319 and Boeing 737. West Jet announced a reduction of 1,000 jobs in 2021 following 10,000 jobs cut in 2020.
Impact on pilot proficiency
Travel restrictions and reduced operations have made it harder for pilots to keep their skills sharp. Captain Mohan Ranganathan is an aviation safety consultant adviser to India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). He says that being away from flying for a long time can decrease the proficiency levels of pilots. Pilots need at least one month to practice their trade before flying again commercially. Executive Director Patrick Ky said that the European Aviation Safety Agency that pilots who have not washed for 3-6 months must get refresher training before they fly again. Major airlines like Qantas are conducting refresher courses for pilots ahead of the resumption of international travel anticipated in 2021.
Response to the crisis
According to The International Civil Aviation Organization, global airline seating capacity fell by 50% in 2020. Only 1.8 million passengers took to the air in 2020 compared to 4.5 million in 2019. With less demand for air travel, the airlines must cope. Air Canada has reduced its international network from 101 airports to just 6. Now, it flies only to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Delhi, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. Air Canada has invested in Abbott’s ID NOW COVID-19 rapid response tests. This test can identify infected cases within 13 minutes. The initiative is to provide quicker and safer access to the public. In addition, the airline has collaborated with Shoppers Drug Mart to make the PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test available to passengers. This is following international travel requirements. According to Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, there have been ongoing discussions between the government and the airline industry. They are figuring out ways to help the airlines through the crisis. Both sides are working to protect the interests of Canadians.
Hemant G is a contributing writer at scuba dive, and watch documentaries when he’s not writing.. He loves to travel,