Out-of-practice pilots have been recorded making mistakes due to a lack of flying hours during the pandemic, according to an internal memo from the airline Qantas, leaked to Australian media on Wednesday.
The memo, by Qantas’ fleet operations chiefs and seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age, reportedly attributed some operational errors to a lack of time in the cockpit, a requirement for pilots known as “recency”.
The memo’s writers said the pandemic had “created a situation where expert pilots have lost recency and experienced a subsequent reduction in cognitive capacity”.
Common errors mentioned in the memo included starting take-off with the parking brake on and misreading the altitude as airspeed, as well as switches in the cockpit panels being in the wrong position.
“Combined with reduced flying across the network, we recognise a flow on effect for flight crew’s focus and familiarity with the operation,” the report continued.
“Routine items that used to be completed with a minimum of effort now occupy more time and divert attention away from flying the aircraft.”
Qantas’ flight operations team monitors flight performance, looking for repeat events or issues with aircraft or pilots - something they describe in the memo as “especially important during the disrupted period of operations we have experienced over the last 19 months”.
It follows a warning from the Air Accident Investigations Branch (AAIB) in December that pilots could be susceptible to small errors due to the pandemic’s impact on their flying hours.
An incident with a TUI Airways plane in September prompted a preliminary report where the AAIB noted the pilots involved had experienced “significant periods without flying in the preceding 18 months”.
The report stated that it had been the Tui first officer’s fourth flight in nearly 11 months, while the captain had flown 10 flights during the previous month.
Both pilots had completed flight simulator sessions during the pandemic, but the AAIB warned that it can be “difficult in the simulated environment to replicate moments of high crew workload”.
New figures published this week showed the UK had dropped more flights than any other European country in 2021, operating only 36 per cent of its usual number of services compared to 2019.
A Qantas spokesperson said: “Airlines around the world are working through the complex process of returning to pre-COVID operations, including bringing back pilots who experienced extended periods on the ground.
“We recognised very early that we needed to think differently about pilot recency, currency and refamiliarisation programs and so we designed an enhanced return-to-work program fit for the unprecedented challenge facing our industry.
“Safety is our number one priority and all of the data shows that our pilots are coming back with the skills and confidence to do their job safely.”
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