The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped many aspects of everyday life and profoundly affected the business aviation community. Nevertheless, as the industry has done many times before, it rose to confront these unprecedented challenges and adapt to the new operating environment. Here are some examples of the lessons learned from our industry’s COVID-19 moment.
FAA Adapts to Changing Environment
As the COVID-19 crisis sharply reduced the number of flights across the globe, business aircraft pilots faced additional challenges in complying with training, recent experience, testing and checking requirements. Also, pandemic regulations, such as stay-at-home orders and social distancing, curtailed available training and check ride opportunities.
In response, the FAA published Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) 118, a temporary rule offering regulatory relief to business aviation. SFAR 118 contained several extensions to assist the industry in continuing critical operations without the risk of invalidating certificates due to an inability to satisfy training and qualification requirements.
“As the pandemic spread around the world, it quickly became clear within the broad aviation industry that we would have to consider how to maintain privileges that had been issued by the FAA,” said Doug Carr, NBAA’s vice president of regulatory and international affairs.
The FAA later extended several exemptions that had been slated to expire during the summer. In an NBAA Virtual Business Aviation Town Hall held in August, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said the agency would continue to weigh additional extensions to general aviation pilot medicals and other requirements granted under SFAR 118 if the effects from COVID-19 extended beyond current deadlines.
“We’re looking at each [exemption] very carefully,” Dickson said. “As it makes sense, we’ll continue to [issue] extensions and do them with enough predictability so that our stakeholders can plan their operations.”
COVID-related facilities closures and staffing reductions also affected the agency’s ongoing implementation of new performance-based navigation routes to airports in the Las Vegas, NV region and similar optimizations across Florida, New York and Washington, DC.
“Because of collective anxiety and uncertainty, we as pilots need to be extra vigilant in self-monitoring symptoms.”
Matthew McNeil Licensed Professional Counselor and Founder, LiftAffect
Mitigating the Effects of ‘ATC Zero’
The national airspace system (NAS) experienced ATC tower and air traffic control center closures during the pandemic since facilities were required to be sanitized following confirmation of positive COVID-19 cases among the workforce.
Since mid-March, the agency recorded dozens of ATC Zero events, although impacts were generally unnoticeable to operators in part due to reduced traffic levels. Also, ATC support of pilots flying in the affected airspace was often transferred to an adjacent facility, the overlying center or the Tracon, which were able to provide real-time information.
“The FAA has managed those ATC Zero events phenomenally in an effort to minimize the impact across the national airspace system,” said Heidi Williams, NBAA’s director of air traffic services and infrastructure. “In almost every event, operators are getting the services they need.”
Even with fewer planes in the air, however, proper flight-planning remains critical. Business aircraft flight crews were encouraged to carry enough fuel not only to reach an alternate airport, but also for a potential diversion outside of impacted airspace.
Pilots should also thoroughly review airport diagrams pre-flight, in the event a normally controlled airport becomes an uncontrolled airport. Aviators also should brush up on uncontrolled airport procedures.
“Flying across the NAS has always represented a team effort between pilots and ATC,” Williams said. “Perhaps now, more than ever, we are all in this together.”
Aircraft Sanitation Practices Evolve
Among the most immediate changes to business aviation from COVID-19 is a renewed and evolving focus on proper sanitization practices of aircraft cabins. Operators moved quickly to adapt FAA and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines in order to reduce the risk of pilots and passengers contracting the virus.
The FAA outlined these practices in a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 20003, which is titled “COVID-19: Interim Health Guidance for Air Carrier Crews.” The CDC provided recommendations for aircraft operators to clean and disinfect aircraft, and business aviation OEMs developed their own recommendations suited to their specific aircraft types.
Business aircraft crewmembers donned personal protective equipment, including gloves and N95 respirator masks, when performing their flight duties. In addition, they took additional recommended precautions, including wearing of safety goggles and hazmat suits or gowns while cleaning and disinfecting the aircraft. Also, NBAA published a new aircraft disinfection and cleaning procedures guide for its members in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“A cough can produce up to 3,000 droplets and spread 15 feet from the person without covering their mouth,” noted Tyler Harper of AEM Logistics and the principal author of the guide. “This has the potential of contaminating most interior surfaces, considering the size of business aircraft.”
Keeping Crews Mentally Fit
Being ‘fit to fly’ is more than just a physical condition; it’s also a mental one. Business aviation professionals are not immune to the mental health issues affecting the overall population, many of which have been heightened by the effects of COVID-19.
This requires aviation managers – many of whom are already confronted with idled aircraft and flight crews – to consider the pandemic’s potential impact on the mental health of their employees, and themselves.
“Because of collective anxiety and uncertainty, we as pilots need to be extra vigilant in self-monitoring symptoms,” said Matt McNeil, a licensed professional counselor and founder of LiftAffect, who noted that pandemic-induced physical and mental impacts, such as increased irritability and trouble sleeping, could increase risks for errors on the flight deck.
“In times like this, it’s easy to feel like everything is a threat when the reality is … you’re probably doing okay,” McNeil continued. “‘Managing the story’ is being mindful of the present moment – not letting your mind run into the future.”
Dr. Paulo Alves, global director of aviation health at MedAire, recommended a change in perspective regarding crew fitness in the midst of COVID-19 outbreak. “Everyone is responsible for the other person,” he said. “You’re not only responsible for yourself, but for the whole flight department.”
Greg Farley, manager of aviation safety and security at John Deere Global Aviation, said his company took practical steps to manage the pandemic’s impact, including new shift schedules, dedicated crewing policies and remote work to minimize employees’ potential exposure to COVID-19. These steps were outlined in the company’s emergency plan prior to the pandemic, he noted.
Navigating State-Level Travel Restrictions
s COVID-19 gripped the country, most states implemented a variety of measures including sweeping travel restrictions, to limit the spread of the virus. These restrictions change frequently and usually do not appear in NOTAMs.
NBAA encourages operators to review all available information about their destination prior to departure. Additionally, the association’s regional representatives have engaged with members in their areas to provide additional insight on aviation restrictions.
“State restrictions can change on a moment’s notice, which sometimes means a conversation between an operator and their regional representative about the particulars of a proposed trip can help them make an informed decision,” said Steve Hadley, NBAA’s regional program director and Southwest regional representative.
Hadley noted that NBAA’s regional representatives have become even more important in the COVID-19 era. “Over the years, we have developed a network of how we communicate with our members,” he said. “With COVID-19, it is critical to provide information on a real-time basis as well as we can.”
Local Groups Stay Engaged
With association gatherings, industry conventions and other face-to-face meetings cancelled for most of 2020, digital engagement became more vital than ever in reaching out to the business aviation community and engaging with elected officials and thought leaders.
In addition to online conferences and video meetings, local and regional business aviation groups have also turned to social media platforms – Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter – to build and expand their digital footprint by posting news, sharing industry updates and remaining engaged with other industry people.
To assist local and regional groups with this perhaps unfamiliar environment, NBAA published a guide for using online resources and social media titled, “Increasing Your Organization’s Digital Engagement.”
“During the COVID-19 crisis, we have been developing new and more-effective methods of virtual communication, which has enhanced our outreach to more people than we would have been able to do before,” said Hadley.
NBAA’s regional representatives also utilize these tools to remain engaged with individual NBAA members, as well as local and regional groups. This has enabled the association to maintain its numerous outreach initiatives, even as COVID-19 led to the cancellation of most NBAA events in 2020.
“This expanded outreach has added value to the work we as regional representatives do, and to the beneficial efforts of the local and regional groups across the country, as we evolve into a more mature virtual network to have a better-informed industry than ever before,” said Hadley.