Rusty pilots could be fatal for passengers – they should be retrained post-lockdown

Tom Mulvihill
·3-min read
karachi plane crash - Getty
karachi plane crash - Getty

Pilot rustiness as a result of lockdown may have led to the fatal crash of a Pakistan International Airlines plane in Karachi last May, Europe’s leading aviation safety official has suggested.

Flight 8303 crash landed in a suburb of Pakistan’s largest city on May 22, killing all but two of the 99 people on board, after its pilots failed to deploy the landing gear when touching down at Jinnah International Airport.

Their mistake damaged the engine, causing it to fail as the plane came back round for a second attempt at landing. 

The Airbus A320 then crashed into Model Colony, a densely populated residential area close to the airport, resulting in multiple injuries and one death among those on the ground.

An investigation into the tragedy has found that the pilots were distracted as they discussed the Covid-19 pandemic, which Patrick Ky, the European Union’s Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Executive Director, attributed to a lack of “fluency” caused by lockdown.

“The pilots did not seem to be as fluent in the way they were conducting their flights as they should have,” he said yesterday.

“If you haven’t flown for three months, six months, you need to be retrained in some way in order to come back.”

Mr Ky also expressed doubts over the condition of PIA’s jets, questioning whether they had been adequately maintained while grounded due to widescale flight cancellations. 

“From a safety perspective, we were concerned with the return to operations. An aircraft is not like a washing machine. You need to perform a certain number of tasks in order to ensure it is safe,” he said.

PIA is currently banned from flying into the UK, EU and United States after failing multiple safety tests.

The airline was also widely condemned in June after it was found that a third of its 434 pilots held fraudulent or “dubious” licences.

It is the latest in a string of crashes and controversies that have dogged the carrier throughout its 68-year history, with 20 of its aircraft having crashed or disappeared since 1952.

Another fatal crash near the Pakistani city of Multan in 2007, in which 45 people died, saw the majority of PIA aircraft banned from European airports, although the ban was lifted after several months.

How are other airlines keeping their pilots fresh?

Rustiness caused by a lack of flight time is a problem facing all airlines at the moment, with most still operating vastly reduced schedules thanks to closed routes and lack of demand.

There are also legal considerations: in the UK, for instance, pilots must have logged recent flying hours to be allowed to operate commercial flights. They have to have completed three takeoffs and landings within the previous 90 days to qualify (and a further three night takeoffs and landings in the same time period in order to fly overnight).

To keep flying, each pilot must also complete an annual License Proficiency Check.

While many of these procedures can be tested in professional-level flight simulators, the majority of test centres have been closed throughout lockdown, resulting in a backlog of pilots who require access to the equipment.

In the meantime, the Civil Aviation Authority (the UK’s aviation regulator) has issued an exemption for all licence checks until October 31, giving airlines some leeway to recertify their pilots.

EASA has offered a similar reprieve on the condition that airlines submit a detailed pilot training programme.

flight simulator - Getty
flight simulator - Getty

But a handful of airlines are simply finding creative ways to get their pilots in the air.

Australian carrier Qantas will soon relaunch its 12-hour “flightseeing” routes over Antarctica, which will run between November and February, while Singapore Airlines is now weighing up the possibility of three-hour “no-destination” flights out of Changi Airport.

A number of major airlines are also running “preighter” flights: passenger planes with their seats stripped out in order to meet a heightened demand for air freight. Lufthansa, Emirates and Air France-KLM have all ramped up their cargo-carrying operations in recent months.