Pilots Are Returning to Work, and Some Are Making Mistakes

Many have barely flown for 18 months
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 15, 2021 5:15 PM CDT
As Air Travel Picks Up, Rusty Pilots Are Making Mistakes
A senior Qantas pilot says pilots typically make one or two minor errors after returning from long periods off.   (Getty Images/SOMATUSCANI)

If you haven't flown for a long time because of the pandemic, you're far from alone—tens of thousands of pilots worldwide have barely flown in the last 18 months, and rusty pilots tend to make mistakes. Bloomberg reports that dozens of incidents involving out-of-practice pilots have been listed on a database set up to identify potential safety threats. In one incident in the US, a pilot returning from a seven-month layoff realized at the last minute that he hadn't lowered the wheels for landing. In another, a captain flying for the first time in six months left a busy airport in the wrong direction. Safety groups warn that mistakes are increasing as air travel worldwide starts to pick up again.

"It is really a critical situation," Uwe Harter, executive vice president for technical and safety standards at the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations, tells Bloomberg. "The last thing the industry needs now is a bad accident." Harter, a Lufthansa pilot who hasn't flown for 18 months, says retraining programs vary widely among airlines, and "the regulations that we have aren’t sufficient." While the mistakes made by pilots returning from long breaks tend to be minor, aviation experts say mundane errors are often the root cause of disasters. Safety experts warn that airlines that have struggled financially during the pandemic might not be spending enough on retraining measures, including extra simulator sessions.

Some pilots say they weren't aware how just how rusty they were until they returned to the cockpit and made minor errors. "We definitely need to be more aware of how much our proficiency decreases as we are flying less," a pilot dialing in the wrong frequency while approaching an airport wrote in an incident report, per CNN. Major airlines including American and Delta, however, say they are on top of the issue, with pilot training beyond regulatory requirements. Qantas says its extensive retraining program is partly based on parallels researchers found with surgeons who hadn't operated for long periods. (Read more airline pilots stories.)

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