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Flying in the COVID-19 Era

To mitigate the risk of the coronavirus, business aircraft operators need to change some protocols.

The COVID-19 coronavirus has had a devastating impact on the entire world, including business aviation. Overnight, virtually everyone was forced to respond to a new and unexpected set of circumstances – stay-at-home mandates, closed businesses and the need to mitigate risk of exposure to a highly infectious disease.

Now, some companies are beginning to fly regularly again. What operational lessons have been learned from the COVID-19 crisis? How will operational procedures – for passengers, flight crews, maintainers, etc. – change to mitigate the risk of infectious disease? How can operators be better prepared for a future crisis – whether it is a pandemic, natural disaster or another catastrophe?

Assessing Risks, Addressing Concerns

“Business aviation is resilient, and we adapt to new challenges regularly,” said Brad Self, chief pilot at VF Corp. “The scale of this pandemic is global and its effects are far-reaching, so it’s critical we understand how to operate in this new environment.”

“Business aviation is resilient, and we adapt to new challenges regularly. The scale of this pandemic is global and its effects are far-reaching, so it’s critical we understand how to operate in this new environment.”

BRAD SELF Chief Pilot, VF Corp.

Recommendations and best practices for flying since the arrival of COVID-19 are not one size fits all. Each organization needs to assess its own virus-related risks. This assessment should consider aircraft size, mission type and even passenger demographics, answering questions such as:

  • Is it a domestic or international trip?
  • Are your passengers in a vulnerable demographic?
  • Is social distancing aboard an aircraft possible?

Ultimately, an organization’s risk assessment and acceptable level of risk tolerance should guide any changes in policies and procedures.

Of course, risk may vary, depending on the type of trip. For example, if the risk level for a particular mission is high – perhaps the destination is still a COVID-19 hot spot – ask your passengers if the trip is truly necessary. Also, ask crewmembers if they are comfortable conducting the flight, and be sure they have personal protective equipment (PPE) available and the knowledge they need to mitigate any risk.

Safety management system concepts like “just culture” play a role here. Members of NBAA’s Business Aviation Management Committee say a crewmember shouldn’t be forced to take an assignment if they feel it is unsafe. Managers need to be prepared to deal with a range of aviation team member reactions to a proposed trip.

“It’s important to recognize people’s fears and address their concerns, but also to keep the workload equitable for everyone,” said Mark Scheele, CAM, chief pilot of Basin Electric Power Cooperative.

One way to help address concerns is to make sure team members are involved in risk-mitigation measures and understand the steps the organization is taking to ensure their safety.

Consider adding a line to the flight risk assessment tool that addresses “COVID considerations.” This will act as a reminder to pilots to be sure passengers have been screened, PPE kits are available on the aircraft, and other steps have been taken to mitigate the risk of virus exposure.

Also, keep in mind that information about COVID-19’s transmission and prevention – along with individual city, state and national mandates and guidelines – are constantly changing, so plan to reassess your organization’s risk level regularly and conduct a risk assessment for each trip.

Early and Ongoing Adjustments

Because it was deemed essential, Basin Electric Power Cooperative continued to fly during the height of the pandemic to patrol and inspect powerlines and pipelines. Scheele and his team had to move quickly to put new procedures in place to keep pilots and other staff safe and healthy.

Initially, the company quarantined aircraft for three days or more between flights, when possible, to reduce risk of virus exposure. Although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now indicates that COVID-19 is not easily spread by contaminated surfaces, the organization focuses on cleaning thoroughly between flights, providing face masks for powerline and pipeline observers, cleaning headsets between flights and changing microphone muffs more often.

“It’s important to recognize people’s fears and address their concerns, but also to keep the workload equitable for everyone.”

MARK SCHEELE CAM, Chief Pilot, Basin Electric Power Cooperative

“As the COVID-19 situation developed, it was apparent to our company that we’d need a return-to-service plan,” said William Riter, aviation department manager at Rich Products Corp. “Initially, we would be flying for business emergencies only, but we knew well in advance that the executive team was looking to us to serve in a support role, and we had to be ready.

Communication is so important during turbulent times, not only within the aviation team, but we also had to be aligned with the executive team,” Riter added.

VF Corp. made changes to the work hours of some aviation team members. “We have a small maintenance team and adjusted their work schedules to Monday through Thursday,” said Self. “They wear masks in the hangar and while performing maintenance duties, which is not easy, and practice social distancing.”

The Rich Products flight department is using the same COVID-19 protocols at its aviation facilities as at its main office, including temperature checks and health screening questions. While the CDC’s recommended upper temperature limit is 100.4 F, Rich Products set its limit lower – an example of adjusting best practices to meet the organization’s acceptable level of risk.

“As the COVID-19 situation developed, it was apparent to our company that we’d need a return-to-service plan.”

WILLIAM RITER Aviation Department Manager, Rich Products Corp.

A Plan for Return to Service

Any changes to aviation policies and procedures should be codified in the operations manual or return-to-service plan, both which should incorporate a number of best practices:

  • Educate pilots and other aviation team members about the importance of monitoring their health. Require any employee with a fever or other COVID-19 symptoms to stay home.
  • Conduct screenings of pilots and passengers using no-touch thermometers or simply by asking whether a person has been around someone who is sick or is experiencing virus symptoms.
  • Encourage social distancing by reorganizing workspaces in offices and hangars.
  • Consider staggering office hours and maintenance shifts, keeping in mind best practices to avoid technicians working alone on high-risk tasks.
  • Use assigned pilot pairs. This can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 from an asymptomatic aviator to the entire pilot pool.
  • To allow for better onboard spacing of passengers, consider reducing passenger loads. Be sure to explain new safety measures, including screening and social distancing or seating policies, to passengers before each flight.
  • Be prepared to conduct contact tracing in the event a passenger or crewmember gets sick. Keep detailed records of everyone who boards the aircraft, even on the ground. If possible, limit aircraft access to passengers, crewmembers and only necessary and trained maintenance and cleaning personnel.
  • Ramp up sanitization efforts in workspaces, lounges and aircraft. Consider applying a disinfecting anti-microbial solution such as Microshield 360 to the aircraft interior, or using ozone generators, which intentionally produce a toxic gas to deodorize, disinfect, kill or remove dangerous or irritating airborne particles in indoor environments. Be sure to check with the aircraft manufacturer for recommended cleaning and sanitization products.
  • To determine the efficacy and appropriateness of new policies and procedures, conduct a debrief after every trip. Do this with both the aviation team and passengers, if possible, to identify areas for improvement.
  • Review overall policies and procedures regularly, as conditions and best medical practices change.

Applying Lessons Learned

“The lessons we’re learning from the COVID-19 pandemic are adaptable,” said Jo Damato, CAM, NBAA’s vice president of educational strategy and workforce development and liaison to NBAA’s Business Aviation Management Committee. “What can your organization take from this experience and apply to future crises, whether natural disasters, political unrest or some other unexpected health crisis?”

Here are some recommendations:

  • Be flexible – One characteristic of crises of all types is rapidly changing situations and emerging information. Stay informed and be prepared to alter your policies and procedures to adapt. “Be ready to shift gears,” said Scheele.
  • Make good use of downtime – For example, evaluate upcoming maintenance needs and perform work while the aircraft is parked.
  • Help manage aviation staff member mental health and well-being during a crisis – Check in with team members regularly and ask how they’re doing. If your organization doesn’t have a formal employee-assistance plan, consider providing one, or have other mental health resources readily available.
  • Develop or improve emergency response plans – How to deal with pandemics isn’t always included in emergency response plans.
  • Partner with other stakeholders to determine the best crisis response – Your principals, passengers and clients might have some good ideas. More heads are better than one.
  • Collaborate with business aviation colleagues – Aircraft operators should share lessons they have learned during the pandemic.

“Continued collaboration is important for leaders, as best practices will change. What makes sense today may not be relevant tomorrow,” suggested Jeff Poeppelman, chief pilot of operations for an insurance and financial services company.

“Life will return to a new normal in waves. Expect your plan to change with each wave,” added Poeppelman. “Continue to learn as you go. Organizations that are agile and responsive will be successful.”

Review NBAA’s COVID-19 resources at nbaa.org/coronavirus.

Training in the Wake of COVID-19

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting aviation training? The biggest change might be greater use of remote training opportunities.

“Many flight departments using distance learning for the first time during COVID-19 were surprised to see the capabilities and usability of programs today,” said Dan Boedigheimer, Ph.D. and CEO of Advanced Aircrew Academy.

One aspect of distance learning today is the highly customizable nature of some platforms. Operators that previously used in-house plus remote training, or only in-house training, are considering transitioning to fully remote training methods.

But these operators still want to keep the personal feel of their training program. Boedigheimer reports clients are now more likely to send videos from management or training personnel to augment certain training modules and personalize their programs.

“For example, more operators are asking to include videos for demonstration of emergency equipment in online modules, instead of conducting hands-on training drills,” explained Boedigheimer.

Some operators are using the slow time caused by COVID-19 to completely overhaul their training programs and transition to remote training, even smaller ones that fly one or two airplanes.

Simulator training centers also are offering remote learning opportunities. FlightSafety International, for example, now offers the ground school portion of recurrent pilot training programs online through its instructor-led LiveLearning system. Pilots must finish the simulator portion of training within 90 days of completing the remote ground portion. Some training providers also are offering a number of maintenance courses online.

Several other changes can be seen at simulator training centers, such as more frequent disinfection of facilities and changing classroom and lounge layouts to encourage social distancing. Also, some regulatory authorities, including the FAA and EASA, have temporarily waived requirements to don oxygen masks or wear headsets during simulator training.

Experts report the need for more-frequent revisions to certain training content in the current environment. Some modules, including those related to occupational health and safety, are being updated more often due to evolving health guidance from medical experts.

“The spread of the COVID-19 virus is of concern to us and others around the world,” said Brian Moore, senior vice president of operations at FlightSafety International. “We are monitoring the situation daily and have implemented measures to help reduce the risk of exposure and spread of this health risk.”

On the Road Again

Life on the road is different now for pilots, cabin crewmembers and passengers, and informing travelers of what to expect is often the first step in preparing for a trip.

Ryan Campbell, director of aviation and chief pilot of Meredith Corp., encourages his pilots to share pertinent information with passengers, and the company’s scheduler provides travelers with a short briefing about COVID-19 exposure mitigation practices being used by the flight department and FBOs.

Many FBOs have implemented new practices to ensure the safe use of their facilities. Most FBOs are cleaning and disinfecting more frequently and encouraging social distancing through signage or by blocking off seating areas. Some facilities have installed plexiglass in front of customer service counters and have adopted no-touch credit card payment methods.

But other procedures vary. For example, some FBOs have stopped providing crew cars and do not offer plane-side ground vehicle delivery, whether personal or rental cars. Others are continuing plane-side ground vehicle delivery in order to limit the number of individuals passing through the lobby. In many cases, using a rental car will result in fewer exposure points than traveling by Uber or taxi. Regardless, experts recommend calling rental car companies, FBOs and hotels ahead of time to verify cleaning and sanitization procedures.

Andrew Dustman, CEO of Synergy, an FBO in Bloomington, IL, said his organization has opted for a risk-based middle of the road approach, including more frequent cleaning, employee self-monitoring for virus symptoms, and policies to promote social distancing for employees and customers.

“We are trying to take a common-sense approach while providing services and amenities at the high level our customers expect,” said Dustman. “To some degree, it’s about personal accountability, and we have to rely on people to make conscious, wise decisions.”

“Our pilots currently call the FBO the day before the flight to check current procedures,” said Campbell. Also, Meredith Corp. pilots mitigate their exposure at FBOs by tankering fuel whenever possible. When buying fuel is necessary, they call the FBO ahead to provide payment information.

Other virus mitigation practices include:

  • Providing each flight crewmember with PPE kits – The package should include gloves, masks and sanitizing wipes so crews can disinfect hotel room light switches, doorknobs and countertops, as well as rental car steering wheels and other high-touch surfaces.
  • Developing guidelines for dining – Options include using hotel room service, having food delivered or getting carry out. Regardless, keep in mind that local restaurant access guidelines often vary and change.
  • Having a response plan for a sick pilot or passenger – Will the second pilot stay at the hotel to quarantine? Will you bring both crewmembers home – and how?
  • “If we have a passenger or crewmember get sick on the road, the response will end up being a group decision. There are just so many variables to consider,” explained Brad Self, VF Corp. chief pilot. In extreme cases, such as flying to a hotspot, it might be prudent to deadhead the crew and aircraft home.
  • William Riter, aviation department manager at Rich Products Corp., summed up the importance of a healthy crew: “Without the crew, the passengers aren’t going anywhere.”

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