Aircraft Accidents and COVID Contingency

Four decades ago, I was a courier for Federal Express around Great Neck, NY. The techniques they taught us helped us plan out our day and route to conserve time, which allowed me to decrease the trips I made between Kings Point and Manhasset. It also assured the freight in my truck made the flight to Memphis. Later, I used these techniques all through my aviation career for Contingency planning.

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, the aviation industry has been riddled with doom forecasters carrying on about how life as we know it was over with. The media took to playing the blame game despite there being plans to get us through. The medical industry, however, continued to improve society’s chances of surviving life after COVID-19 because of contingency planning. So, let the media persist in drowning us in calamity after unendurable calamity as they stew in possible future disasters, e.g. birds and cats living together; Colin Kaepernick winning a seat in the US Senate or even, God forbid, another Star Wars sequel. Oh, the Humanity! We, in aviation, think beyond the adversity; there are those who foresaw the problem coming and planned around, through and past it.

On September 11, 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded all civilian traffic until September 13th, immediately during and following the 9/11 terror attacks, using similar techniques employed in the early 1960s defense test known as Operation Sky Shield. Though the processes used this year were not as aggressive – most airlines are still flying – the airline industry and the FAA have planned well before the 9/11 attacks for many contingencies, including pandemics, war and crippling worker strikes. It would be interesting to learn that these plans include various other debilitating situations and at different levels of intensity. Everyone prays these contingencies are never used, but it is always wise to plan for the worst – hope for the best. The trick is to affect the least number of employees as possible, keeping as many employed during the crisis.

How, then, would the airlines plan a contingency for surviving a one month-PLUS business interruption? The answer would be threefold: business-as-usual, adaption and what was spoken about in the first paragraph, namely the conservation of time.

To be sure, airlines, e.g. UPS, FedEx and other cargo carriers, have not been hit as hard as the passenger airlines; they have continued flying business-as-usual. Medicines, personal protection equipment, ventilators, etc. have been flown in and out of the United States (US), as well as across the domestic US, on uninterrupted schedules since before the lockdowns began. Indeed, the freight and the flights to many destinations have increased, improving the flow of medical goods, as well as the movement of civilian goods, e.g. foodstuffs, the equipment/materials needed to build said medical equipment, documents (mail), and any cargo that would keep the American economy going uninterrupted. While trucking is the preferred mode of transport, weather and distance make flying more logical.

Passenger airlines have moved some cargo. Restricted to the bellies, these cargo movements are limited where the passenger traffic normally supplements the flight costs. What is a passenger airline to do, especially with widebody aircraft normally moving hundreds of customers per flight? The airline adapts. Narrow body aircraft can be employed to move medical personnel from small towns unaffected to coronavirus hot zones, like New York City. Most narrow body aircraft can be filled with military personnel responding to government needs, airliners that are normally used in the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, aka CRAF. These CRAF airliners are made use of regularly during peace and war time to move military personnel to support military lift dedicated to other pressing causes, like moving tanks.

Passenger airliners can also be converted to carry just cargo, even in the passenger cabins. Airlines, such as American and Delta Airlines, have dedicated widebody airliners to all-cargo flights; they are flown to many international destinations or Alaska, Hawaii and other US territories abroad. This happens in one of two ways. The first way, the seats are used to restrain boxes with added netting restraints covering the seat/box coupling, which is then restrained to the seat tracks in the floor under the airliner’s carpeting. This should require a minimal revision to the airline’s weight and balance (W&B) procedures.

The second way would be for the airliners to be stripped of the seats, carpeting and all non-essential equipment, e.g. meal carts, coffee makers, aft bathroom fluids, to reduce excess weight that would add to fuel costs. Mechanics could strip and then reweigh the airliner for a new empty weight center of gravity. At the same time, the FAA and the airline would revise the W&B procedures and train personnel and pilots to the new procedures, e.g. strapping the freight to the floors, determining weight zoning and how to build freight in those zones. Passenger flights will be reintroduced after the interruption; as the flight schedule is slowly increased, the all-cargo converted aircraft will be gradually returned to passenger service.

Pilots can conduct training during this time, utilizing large, well-ventilated classrooms or empty hotel meeting rooms, to assure social distancing. These days of Powerpoint teaching presentations make mobile classrooms more accessible, even utilizing remote classrooms. Simulators, where available, can provide pilots with continuous practice and training in the weeks that flying has been throttled back. Pilots who live far from the training facility can be moved by taking advantage of industry co-op agreement privileges, jumpseating in the cockpit to minimize social interaction with the passengers.

Certainly, not all air carriers can continue business-as-usual or adapt by converting its fleet to all-cargo airliners. What, then, can a certificate holder, such as an air carrier or repair station, do to remain actively employed? The best one could do would be to commit to a conservation of time, namely one that allows social distancing and the Great Outdoors, or, to be more specific, the Great Outside.

On daily flights, commercial airliners pick up maintenance discrepancies like children pick up colds; they can be numerous and at times hard to detect. In the digital age, while many discrepancies are reported via the aircraft’s computer, the electrical anomalies can be hard to trace down due to corrosion and the hundreds of wires going into one cannon plug.

In a similar way, structural problems can emerge for simple reasons of everyday use, e.g. salt air, humidity, residual deicing fluid, heat expansion or corrosive chemicals. With aluminum, the various types of corrosion are more evident; testing can bring out the faults, even those hidden beneath the surface of the metal. With composites, defects are less obvious; bonding of the layers and epoxies are subsurface and look, to the naked eye, normal, all the while allowing water to occupy the gaps and through expansion at high altitudes, destroy the composite component’s integrity.

These aircraft problems are not limited to electrical or structural; often regular components that require extensive ground time will fail and have to be deferred to a later date. Each aircraft is designed with the ability to suspend repairs on certain systems and components to allow for flight scheduling, parts ordering, repair planning and troubleshooting. These items do not reduce safety, but give the air operator time to respond.

These discrepancies do accumulate. Sometimes an operator needs time to address them or time to move the part to the aircraft. During this pandemic, the air operators are given the gift of time – some would argue too much time – but time, nonetheless. Planes that sit due to shutdowns can be troubleshot and repaired; wire harnesses can be wrung out and replaced. The abundance of ground time gives repair stations the chance to catch up, move overhauled components out to the air operators and clear their shelf stock, while bringing more in. Work can be accomplished outdoors to allow for social distancing. Aircraft areas can be zoned during phase checks to prevent close and/or tight working quarters.

Structural repairs that require long ground times now have enough time to make the repair while making the flight times not yet decided in the future. Patch repairs can be easily addressed; the patch can be removed, inspected, repaired and the patch reinstalled without affecting the flight schedule. Corrosion can be removed, redressed and any components reinstalled in a timely manner.

This COVID-19 situation can be viewed as a ‘glass-half-empty’ crisis. It has put a strain on all industries – some more than others – not just aviation. However, there are means to keep as many technicians and support staff working as possible; to keep pilots and flight attendants current, those whose airlines are flying and those who are not. It is a time for aviation, just like America, to show its very best.

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