“Air rage” and rusty pilots among the dangers of Covid-19 flight
The brutal shutdown imposed on the aviation industry by the Covid-19 crisis has hit the sector hard. In April 2020, two-thirds of the world’s commercial aviation fleet were idle on the tarmac, while passenger traffic was down 90% year-on-year.
Today, the aviation industry is slowly rebounding, driven by domestic travel.
As more planes return to the skies, a new report from aviation insurer Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS) highlights some of the unique challenges airlines and airports face when they restart their operations, ranging from “rusty” pilots to insect infestations.
It also identifies a number of ways Covid-19 is reshaping the industry, leading to long-term changes in fleet makeup, flight routes and passenger demand.
“The immobilization of global fleets during the pandemic was an unprecedented event for the aviation industry,” said Dave Warfel, regional aviation manager at AGCS.
“The airlines have worked tirelessly to maintain their fleets and train their crews during this long period of inactivity and, as insurers, we take a keen interest in working with them to understand their return to service plans.
“Challenges will undoubtedly arise as the industry once again prepares to take off. While it is difficult to predict exactly in what form the aviation industry will return, one thing is certain: it will have changed.
“Rusty” pilots and return of tourist flights
Earlier this year, dozens of pilots reported making mistakes – such as multiple landing attempts – to NASA’s air safety reporting system, many citing rust as a factor back in the sky, Allianz said. .
Airlines and other operators are well aware of the potential for pilot “rust” and continue to take steps to manage and mitigate these risks, he said.
Large airlines have developed different training programs for returning pilots, depending on the length of absence.
“In an era of unprecedented activity, it is heartwarming to know that the risk management processes that made air travel safer than any form of travel before the pandemic will continue to create an unprecedented travel safety environment in the world. the post-Covid-19 world, ”Warfel said.
However, the return of tourist flights to tourist destinations could lead to an increased risk for small recreational aircraft, including helicopters, especially if there is an influx of new pilots unfamiliar with the roads and terrain.
There have already been a number of fatal accidents involving tourist thefts in recent years, Allianz pointed out.
“Air rage” incidents on the rise
The unruly behavior of airline passengers is a growing concern, especially in the United States, the insurer said. In a typical year, there are approximately 150 reports of passenger disruption on board an aircraft.
As of June 2021, there had been 3,000 according to the Federal Aviation Administration – the majority involving passengers refusing to wear a mask. The report notes that unruly passengers may later claim they have been discriminated against by the airline in these cases, even when they are wrong – a trend insurers must follow.
The dangers of parked fleets
While a large portion of the global air fleet was – and still is – stationed during Covid-19, casualty exposures are not disappearing. They change. Parked fleets are exposed to weather events. There have been numerous incidents of aircraft on the ground damaged by hailstorms and hurricanes, Allianz said.
The risk of ground maneuvers or incidents also increases, which can lead to costly claims. There were a number of collisions early in the pandemic as operators moved planes to storage facilities. They are more likely when aircraft are moved again before being reused.
Stored aircraft generally undergo regular maintenance to ensure they are ready to return. However, never has the industry seen so many aircraft temporarily taken out of service and the report notes that smaller airlines may face significant challenges when reactivating fleets, given that it will be an unprecedented process. , Allianz said.
Pilot shortage carries risks
Strange as it may sound given the impact of Covid-19, the global aviation industry is facing a shortage of pilots in the medium to long term. The huge increase in air travel before the pandemic – the annual growth in air passenger numbers in China alone has been more than 10% per year since 2011 – meant that demand for pilots was already outstripping supply. More than a quarter of a million will be needed over the next decade.
“In less regulated countries, shortages can cause pilots to operate commercial aircraft with limited qualifications and reduced overall flight time,” Warfel said.
“Pilot fatigue is also a known risk among existing pilots that needs to be properly managed. Fortunately, there is a lot of industry expertise and resources available to help airlines put proper fatigue management systems in place. “
Some airlines build their own pilot pipelines by setting up flight schools. Due to the nature of the training, flight schools are prone to accidents and claims become more and more costly as the value of aircraft increases and activity increases. Landing accidents are the most common, but insurers have also recorded total losses.
Next Generation Aircraft Bring Safety Improvements, Higher Costs
A number of airlines have downsized their fleets or retired planes over the past year as the pandemic accelerates a generational shift towards smaller planes, given the expected reduction in the number of passengers on planes to short term.
“Next-generation aircraft bring benefits in terms of safety and efficiency,” said Axel von Frowein, regional aviation manager at AGCS. “However, new materials such as composites, titanium and alloys are more expensive to repair, resulting in higher claim costs.”
Air freight strong performance and trend will continue
Although passenger travel has been devastated by the pandemic, other sectors of aviation have shown stronger performance, such as freight operators.
In April 2021, Asia-Pacific reported its best month for international air cargo since the start of the pandemic, thanks to growing business confidence, e-commerce and congestion in seaports, while capacity freight from Latin America to North America increased by almost a third in May 2021 compared to the same two-week period in 2019.
The report expects air freight to continue to perform well.
Business Travel – Boom or Recession?
Pre-Covid-19 business travel traffic amounted to $ 1.5 trillion per year, or about 1.7% of global GDP. As many airlines review their short-term expectations, the report asks if those days are over.
New modes of collaboration, such as video calling, have proven to be effective and more and more companies are aiming to reduce business travel to improve their carbon footprint. Therefore, while there will be an initial increase once the closures are completed, many airlines are bracing for a long-term paradigm shift in travel, with business travel expected to be slow to resume, Allianz said. .
However, what argues for a possible increase is that some areas of business aviation have proven to be resilient during the pandemic. Companies that owned planes continued to use them, while many companies that had never bought or chartered planes did so for the first time. Many charter companies have flourished.
New routes are on the rise in Europe and Asia-Pacific
More than 1,400 new air links are planned for 2021 – more than double those added in 2016 – driven by Europe (more than 600) and Asia-Pacific (more than 500), with regional airports to be the main beneficiaries. Growth in China’s domestic market alone has seen the addition of more than 200 new routes – almost as many as in the United States.
“This development reflects the desire of some airlines to experiment in times of uncertainty, especially in smaller ones,” said von Frowein. “New routes mean less airspace and congestion at airports, which can have a positive impact on risks such as groundhandling incidents. However, flying on new routes can lead to an increased risk environment. “
Insect infestations affecting the accuracy of the instrument
There were a number of reports of unreliable airspeed and altitude readings during the first flight (s) after some aircraft left storage.
In many cases, the problem came from undetected insect nests inside the aircraft’s pitot tubes, pressure-sensitive sensors that transmit data to an avionics computer, Allianz said. Such incidents led to rejected take-offs and rollbacks. The risk of contamination increases if storage procedures are not followed.
Impact of Covid-19 claims
The report also notes that the aviation industry has seen relatively few claims directly related to the pandemic to date. In a small number of liability notifications, passengers sued airlines for cancellations / disruptions.
“Covid-19 has not been a direct driver of aviation claims over the past year,” said Cristina Schoen, global head of aviation claims at AGCS.
“Due to the significant reduction in commercial air travel during the pandemic, we have seen fewer attritional claims than we would have in a typical year.
“However, the insurance industry has not been immune to greater losses during the pandemic, with different regions experiencing tragic accidents, emergency landings and hull losses to name a few. some. As air travel begins to return to pre-pandemic levels, we expect the volume of claims to increase as a result. “
GATS analysis of more than 46,000 aviation insurance claims from 2016 to the end of 2020 valued at over 14.5 billion euros ($ 17.3 billion) shows that collisions / accidents account for more than half of the value of all claims. Other costly causes of loss include faulty manufacturing / maintenance and machinery breakdown.
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