Through trip planning and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances have always been requirements for safe operations, particularly for international missions. But they’re even more important in the COVID environment, as more aircraft operators are looking to resume international travel in the coming months.
“International operators must stay ahead of where the restrictions are and who they apply to; what alternatives, if any, are available; and where they can find [COVID-19] testing,” said Doug Carr, NBAA vice president of regulatory and international affairs. “Those considerations make planning overseas trips much more than just securing airspace permits and landing slots.”
Further complicating this process is that many flight crews have experienced drastic cutbacks to international trips over the past year.
“Before COVID-19, we did almost 800 hours of flying annually, of which 90% was international,” said Gulfstream G650 Captain Nat Iyengar. “That plummeted to 120 hours last year, and I’d say 90% of operators outside charter and fractional [sectors] are in the same boat.”
While international travel has increased over the past few months, operators remain challenged by ongoing travel restrictions and a slew of new requirements that may vary greatly between destinations. A trip to India in August 2020 revealed these new caveats to Kellie Rittenhouse, director of aviation at Hangar Aviation Management.
“We'd make a plan, and then change it six or seven times over a 4-6 week timeframe before ultimately executing a flight that bore little resemblance to that first plan.”
Kellie Rittenhouse Director of Aviation, Hangar Aviation Management
“There were changes to what visas were required, and what would or would not be allowed,” explained Rittenhouse. “We have a very good rapport with our international handler, and we trusted that what he was describing to us would be in fact what we would find to be true on that day.”
Flight crews sometimes also were not able to remain overnight at their destination due to spiking COVID-19 cases, requiring creative solutions such as midpoint crew swaps.
In addition, required tech stops when returning to the U.S. were made more difficult when the Schengen countries prohibited foreign visitors and as the United Kingdom issued new COVID restrictions while also navigating implementation of “Brexit.”
“We’d make a plan, and then change it six or seven times over a 4-6 week time frame before ultimately executing a flight that bore little resemblance to that first plan,” Rittenhouse said. “That’s something I fully expect will continue as we go forward.”
Navigating the ‘Stage Gates’
In addition to verifying ever-changing travel policies and restrictions, business aircraft operators flying overseas must also be aware of increasingly rigid COVID-19 testing requirements at their destinations. For example, many countries now require polymerase chain reaction (PCR) nasal swab testing instead of less invasive, but also less accurate, antigen-based tests.
Also, some countries require proof of testing prior to the trip – typically between 48-72 hours – although some nations have moved to testing at the time of arrival. While noting that “generally, flight crews have been exempted from some of the more limiting requirements of travel,” Carr emphasized they must be thoroughly versed in testing and other requirements for their passengers at their destination.
“There are different ‘stage gates’ for planning international travel. Number one, can I operate to this country? Number two, what am I allowed to do once I arrive?”
Adam Hartley Manager of Global Regulatory Services and Global Emissions Programs, Universal Weather and Aviation
“We typically tell passengers and crews to focus on where’s the hotel, where’s the meeting and how are we getting there,” continued Carr. “The practices now involved, from the time the airplane door opens on the arrival until it closes on the departure, require us to be far more engaged and familiar with every step of that journey.”
“There are different ‘stage gates’” for planning international travel, explained Adam Hartley, manager of global regulatory services and global emissions programs at Universal Weather and Aviation. “Number one, can I operate to this country? Number two, what am I allowed to do once I arrive?”
While business aviation exists to facilitate travel options, Hartley recommended a slightly different perspective when planning international travel in the months ahead.
“Work from ‘I can’t go’ and then look for specific scenarios that may offer exceptions,” he suggested. “That’s a better place to start than creating a situation where somebody discovers at the last minute they’re not able to travel.”
“Even when you can enter a country, you may face 14 to 21 days of quarantine,” Iyengar noted. “It’s just not possible for most executives to do business that way. Everyone in your group must also live in a kind of bubble amongst themselves and stay away from those outside their bubble.”
Steve Thorpe, a Gulfstream G550 captain and former chair of the NBAA International Operations Committee, noted that while a pre-COVID trip to Europe “wasn’t much more complex than a trip to Los Angeles or San Francisco and could be arranged within four hours” in most cases, “it’s a much longer process now.”
Proper accommodations must be made for crewmember lodging and dealing with the lack of easily-accessible dining options. Such contingencies may also drive updates to company operations manuals.
Thorpe noted that his company’s emergency response plan includes natural disaster planning, but not pandemic-specific protocols.
“We didn’t really have to modify that [for COVID], but we did apply our safety management system and change-management process to identify items that needed more intensive planning in this environment,” he said.
Alternates More Important Than Ever
The potential for sudden restrictions to entering a country also highlights the importance of planning an alternate should crews find their scheduled destination suddenly locked down.
“While people are performing a high level of due diligence prior to travel, devoting that same energy to a potential second – or even third – location is tough,” Hartley said. “You must consider all the same complexities at your backup as you would at your primary destination,” which indicates how difficult things can be right now.
Even when arriving at the primary destination, flight crews must be ready to adapt to circumstances that may be quite different than expected.
“We had eight people in hazmat suits waiting to disinfect our plane landing in Dubai,” Rittenhouse explained. “We knew that could happen and had briefed for it ahead of time, but it was still very strange in that moment. And it’s not like we’re going to tell them they can’t do that.”
“We asked to see the products they were going to use, and knew they were approved by our OEM,” she continued. “Everyone was professional, and everything was handled well, but it was still in complete opposition to our ops manual that specifies no one but company personnel are allowed on the plane.”
On another recent trip, Rittenhouse learned at the last minute their destination had mandated PCR testing for flight crews within 72 hours of arrival.
“That was one of those low curve balls,” she said. “We located, through one of our partners, a vendor who helped us get concierge testing at the hotel, and we had the results back within five hours. It was very costly, but necessary.”
The ‘New Normal’ Likely to Stay
Just as there’s a consensus that international business aviation travel is not likely to significantly increase until at least the second quarter, those experts interviewed believe COVID-related policies and limitations will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.
“My colleagues expect that international travel will ultimately require proof of vaccination.”
Nat Iyengar Gulfstream G650 Captain
“My colleagues expect that international travel will ultimately require proof of vaccination,” Iyengar said. “That may be through electronic means, maybe some kind of QR code to show that you’ve received a vaccination [and] to try and prevent forgeries. I also suspect that for the near future, countries will still require testing within 48 or 72 hours, at least until there’s a higher level of confidence in the vaccines.”
“Pre-planning has never been more important,” Rittenhouse concluded. “There’s no such thing right now as a ‘routine flight.’ It’s important that everyone keeps thinking, everyone keeps questioning, and everyone keeps listening to other feedback.”
Thorpe recommended that international operators take additional steps to mitigate the risk of complacency, including planning “faux trips” to maintain skills.
“We’re fighting to stay proficient because we haven’t [flown overseas] in a long time,” he said. “It’s important to keep our heads in the game.”
“We’re all in this together,” Hartley said. “We all want safe international travel to resume, but it’s just going to be a little bit slower return than I think we all want. That’s just the regulatory environment we’re going to be working in for the near future.”
U.S. Steps Up Entry Procedures
Although travel from some regions remained banned through the first months of this year, several operators noted the United States had been generally lax on additional COVID-related passenger reentry requirements from most countries.
That changed on Jan. 26, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new order requiring all international passengers arriving in the U.S. – including those on business aircraft – to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. The order includes a waiver process, requested by NBAA, for those departing countries with no COVID testing available or with non-CDC-approved documentation. It also outlines more detailed guidance on how to address passengers who already have recovered from COVID-19.
While these and other COVID-related protocols are likely to remain through the rest of this year, operators may seek ways to ease other aspects of reentering the country, particularly for their most frequent passengers. For example, the Visa Waiver program allows aircraft operators to carry passengers of 39 different nationalities into the U.S. without them previously obtaining a visa.
“That’s an amazing operational ability,” Universal Weather’s Adam Hartley said. “Particularly when under a restrictive regulatory environment – for whatever reason – you want opportunities to expand your flexibility anywhere you can.”