Pilots Are A Little Rusty After COVID-19 Slashed Flights

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Last year was the worst in aviation history from a financial standpoint according to industry analysis, and all that downtime has left pilots feeling a little rusty, leading to an increasing number of in-flight mistakes.

Pilots are right up there with surgeons and hair stylists as the last group of people you ever want to hear whisper “oops” at work, but that’s happening more and more. Pilots say all this downtime due to COVID-19 is partially to blame, according to CNN.

“This was my first flight in nearly 3 months,” one pilot wrote in a June report explaining why he or she neglected to turn on the critical anti-icing system. “I placed too much confidence in assuming that it would all come back to me as ‘second nature.’”

The report on that flight, which landed without incident, is one of more than two dozen documenting the challenges of returning from pandemic-related leave filed in a federal system for tracking aviation mistakes.

A CNN analysis of the publicly available reports, which were highlighted in a recent report by the Los Angeles Times, found returning pilots acknowledging their skills were not as sharp as they expected.

The idea behind the NASA-run Aviation Safety Reporting System is that coming clean about errors allows for analysis and improvements that make aviation safer. The reports are stripped of identifying information — such as which airline and which airports were involved — and made public in a government database.

“Everyone knows that flying skills and company policies/procedures are highly diminishable,” the pilot wrote in the anti-icing report. “In order to prepare for a flight following a period of inactivity I should have dedicated more time to review my duties.”


One of the most serious errors occurred when a flight team dealing with turbulence and other problems forgot to receive landing clearance from air traffic control. That’s pretty chilling! Pilots are still not getting a lot of chances to shake off the cobwebs. Currently, airlines are flying 45 percent fewer flights than pre-COVID, according to the industry group Airlines For America.

There is training available, and any pilot who is out of the cockpit for 90 days or more is required by the feds to brush-up on their flight skills. CNN spoke to a senior pilot for American who took a four-month leave of absence during this historic downturn in airline flights, specifically to allow younger pilots more air time:

Curtis Joens is an American captain who recently returned from a four-month leave of absence — the first of his three-decade career. Joens said that as a more senior pilot, he took some time away from the job to give lower-ranked pilots an opportunity to keep flying.

Joens said he studied before brushing up on his skills at the training center. He said one instructor commented after a simulator ride that his time away from the cockpit wasn’t noticeable.

Key to safe flight, Joens said, is the methodical way pilots approach their work.

“We don’t just sit down and say, ‘OK, start engines,’ and fly by the seat of our pants,” he told CNN. “There’s a checklist and a methodology for everything that we do, all the way from the preflight to starting engines, to taxi, to takeoff.”


The problem seems like it won’t be disappearing any time soon for airlines, either. Just last week, the Transportation Security Administration reported fewer than 500,000 travelers on a single day — the first time so few people have traveled since June, according to the Washington Post.