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Concerns Over Idle Pilots: Deteriorating Working Conditions And Higher Stress Levels

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The coronavirus continues to devastate the airline industry. The number of passengers is still down more than 60%. So with airlines flying fewer planes, they need fewer pilots. A recent survey finds that more than half of commercial airline pilots globally are no longer flying. Those who are working are flying less often, and some admit they're making mistakes in the cockpit because they're rusty. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: A year ago at this time, anyone wanting a career as a commercial airline pilot was probably thinking - if you'll forgive the pun - the sky's the limit.

MARK CHARMAN: It was only really 12 months ago that airlines were struggling to find experienced pilots.

SCHAPER: Mark Charman is CEO of the U.K.-based aviation headhunting firm Goose Recruitment. And he says airlines were offering pilots top-dollar salaries and big signing bonuses. But now because of the pandemic, his company's recent survey of airline pilots around the world finds that 57% of them are no longer flying.

CHARMAN: Some of these pilots are fast approaching a year since they've last flown. And we heard some - you know, some anecdotal stories about airline captains having to take jobs as delivery drivers and do whatever they can to simply find work.

SCHAPER: And even more pilots may be out of work soon. Both American and United Airlines have notified a few thousand pilots that they may be furloughed as soon as April 1 if a federal payroll support program is not extended. And worries about future job security is a big source of angst right now among the pilots who are still flying.

R D JOHNSON: I do believe there's anxiety with all the pilots, no matter what organization they're with.

SCHAPER: R.D. Johnson is a retired American Airlines pilot who now teaches pilots safety at the University of Southern California's School of Aviation Safety and Security. He says many pilots are feeling additional pandemic-related stress on top of their everyday stresses. But he says pilots are trained to keep those worries out of the cockpit.

JOHNSON: As pilots, we're trained to compartmentalize. We're also trained to deal with the inevitable stress point, which could either be a emergency with the aircraft or an emergency with the people on board.

SCHAPER: But Johnson says that doesn't mean pilots are perfect. Some of them are reporting that they've made mistakes in recent months that they blame in part on not flying as much and being a little rusty. NASA has what's called the Aviation Safety Reporting System, which allows flight crews to anonymously report problems they encounter without facing repercussions.

In recent months, one pilot who hadn't flown in a while reported forgetting to disengage the parking brake when pulling back from the gate, damaging the tow gear. Another reported forgetting to turn on a de-icing system that would protect speed and altitude sensors. That pilot's saying, quote, "Because I had not flown in a few months, I was rusty." Others have reported flying at the wrong speed or altitude. A few report unstable approaches to landing or coming in too high, too low or too fast, requiring the pilots to pull up and go around. We've counted at least two-dozen such incidents, most of them minor mistakes that were caught by the other pilot, by air traffic control or by cockpit alerts. And other factors are often involved, but the pilots attribute them in part to not flying much or at all in several weeks or months.

Hassan Shahidi is CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, a global independent nonprofit that works to improve aviation safety. He says repetition is important because flying a commercial jet requires following complex procedures and detailed checklists.

HASSAN SHAHIDI: When you do this day in and day out, a number of those things are certainly done through memory, as part of the routine. So any time you break that routine, you then have a situation in terms of forgetting something.

SCHAPER: The FAA does require pilots to perform at least three takeoffs and landings every 90 days to stay current. And Hassan says there doesn't appear to be a troubling trend attributable to pilot rustiness yet. But he and others are watching carefully to see if there may be a need for safety improvements as the pandemic goes on.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.