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Keeping safety central as aviation gets flying again

by Joji Waites Head of Flight Safety

This summer the ramp up in flying has not been what we had hoped. The retention of many of the Government’s illogical travelling restrictions, the confusing UK ‘traffic light’ system and the requirement for high cost PCR coronavirus tests, kept consumer confidence low and meant aviation remained in lockdown well after other sectors were allowed to resume trading. Thankfully several of these barriers will shortly be removed following a change in Government policy.

However, it has meant that many pilots have been grounded for a very long time.

Training and assessment of pilots is highly regulated. In fact, pilots are among the most thoroughly trained and ‘tested’ professionals in the world. There are rules in place to ensure pilots are sufficiently qualified to do their job… they must obtain the correct licence and ratings and must stay current by flying regularly.

But this period of reduced flying and long-term groundings has been a new and unique situation. As demand returns and pilots once again take to the controls it is vital that flight safety remains central to all operations, and that systems are in place to support all returning aviation professionals.

BALPA has worked with the regulator, airlines, and the Government to ensure the aviation system has been able to restart in a safe, measured and, for the most part, a well-managed way. BALPA, regulatory authorities and industry have united on a cautious approach that favours defensive flying and providing more time to complete tasks such as pre-flight checks and turn-arounds. The aim is to allow flight crew to smoothly reacclimatise to line flying and to have additional capacity to navigate a different operational environment.


Against the widely held desire of all in civil aviation to maintain our enviable safety record, there are always going to be challenges. First and foremost, the logistical and costly headache of recovering flight crew recency, both in terms of legal and operational contexts, through extensive simulator and computer-based training.

It isn’t possible to recall pilots to work at the drop of a hat. They need to have kept their licence valid. They need to be current, but more than that they need time to refresh and get up to speed.

No-one wants a rusty pilot, in a rusty system. That’s why training and preparation is vital. But it is also costly. Simulator time and training flights are expensive and is required before the demand returns, flights begin to ramp-up and the cash begins to flow again. This necessary expense is a huge burden at a most vulnerable time and is why BALPA is calling for the Government to look at ways to support aviation to ensure skills are retained, and the industry can invest in the right level of training, technology, and systems so that flight safety is assured as we move beyond the pandemic.

A similar challenge was addressed in bringing aircraft back to full airworthiness having been parked or stored for a prolonged period. Quiet aerodromes have led to wildlife re-claiming these open spaces as their own habitat, which has resulted in issues such as insect infestation of aircraft pitot-static systems. Fortunately, there are procedures to identify and deal with the consequences of such issues, so whilst there have been some incidents, they have not escalated to a more severe outcome.

BALPA: a leading voice in aviation safety

Throughout this period BALPA, with the help of its members, has kept a close focus on safety as operations have resumed. For example, holding airlines to account in identifying scheduling practices that risk flight crew fatigue and resisting instances of commercial pressure that could impact on safety and the wellbeing of crew. Looking forward, flight crew will need opportunities to consolidate their flying and decision-making skills otherwise there will be a risk of skill-fade in these important areas.

It has become clear that the pandemic with its overarching spectre of fear over job security has resulted in a decline in the formal reporting of safety issues. This is understandable, but in a novel and changing environment the intelligence gleaned from first-hand experiences is vital to ensure a true understanding of the safety landscape.

Our message is very much “report, report, report” but this requires a supportive organisational culture where employees feel empowered and psychologically safe to raise their concerns. To help identify such intelligence, BALPA in collaboration with Cranfield University and Cognitive Edge is running a survey aimed at frontline aviation professionals to collect their operational experiences, both before and during the pandemic. We will ask our members to add their first-hand experiences, if they can, and will report our findings in due course.