AINsight: Pilot’s Survival Guide to a Global Pandemic

 - March 27, 2020, 11:34 AM
pilots flying
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed flying for pilots. Besides strategies to reduce risk of catching the virus, pilots should also plan to add enough extra fuel to accommodate unplanned reroutes or airport closures due to potential disruptions caused by an ATC Zero status. (Photo: Chad Trautvetter/AIN)

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.


Life is completely different now. Covid-19 has required all of us to make significant adjustments in our daily routines. People are working from home. Kids are not in school. As my family and neighbors are stocking up, locking down, and staying home, I’m preparing for my next flight. As I begin to pack my bags, I realize that flying is different now.  

Social distancing and good hygiene, such as hand washing, are two practices that can help contain the spread of coronavirus and “flatten the curve.” This is all for the greater good, and we should all do our part.

But flight crews, in addition to health and safety concerns, now face significant logistical and operational challenges. The realities of a global pandemic include restrictive travel advisories, shelter-in-place orders, and air traffic disruptions; each requiring a lot more planning, preparation, and patience to operate safely during this crisis.

Before heading out to the airport, there’s some work to be done. The first question—and most obvious if you’re operating internationally—is can you or should you go? The current U.S. Level 4 travel advisory urges Americans not to travel abroad. This advisory from the State Department is the most severe and suggests that if you do choose to travel, don’t rely on the U.S. government for assistance. The Level 4 travel advisory, announced on March 21, allows trade (such as cargo) to continue, but restricts non-essential travel, such as tourism. Again, this is a U.S. advisory; other countries might be more restrictive.

Other considerations, for international travel, include rapidly changing customs and immigration procedures and health assessments required for entry around the globe. Health assessments might include temperature checks, blood draws, or more comprehensive Covid-19 tests. Most of these procedures are variable based on the individual's travel history (looking back 14 days).

Some countries, such as South Korea, have an app for self-assessment that must be downloaded and completed before entry. At the very least, have a good understanding of the most current health assessments and the protocol if any of these tests are failed. It’s probably helpful to have resources on the ground, to aid if needed.   

Specifically for flight planning, one term that hasn’t been widely used since 9/11 is ATC Zero. This term is used by the FAA when air traffic control personnel are no longer able to provide services within the airspace managed by a specific facility; normal flight operations during these periods are suspended.

During 9/11, the entire U.S. National Airspace System was shut down for several days. During the past two weeks, ATC tower facilities at Chicago Midway, Las Vegas McCarren, all three major New York airports (JFK, LGA, and EWR) and Indianapolis Center (ARTCC–East High Sector above FL230) went to an ATC Zero status due to “staffing issues” associated with positive Covid-19 tests.

During this crisis, as a contingency, pilots should plan to add enough extra fuel to accommodate unplanned reroutes or airport closures due to potential disruptions caused by an ATC Zero status.

Understandably, there are a lot of health and safety concerns and apprehension by pilots. These concerns often relate to interactions with other individuals and are valid. On March 12, the FAA published Safety Alert For Operators 20003 that provides interim health guidance, as it relates to Covid-19, for air carriers and crew.

Outside of the aircraft, there are several opportunities for exposure to this virus. Preflight and postflight routines require pilots to interact with many individuals, including line techs, fuelers, and maintenance personnel. For the most part, these activities should present no greater risk than going to the grocery store or picking up a carry-out order. Limiting contact by social distancing, wearing protective gear (such as latex gloves), and handwashing should keep you safe.

Once in the aircraft, there are other challenges. How can a flight crew distance themselves from each other and passengers when confined to a pressurized aluminum tube? The short answer is that it is difficult.

Both pilots and passengers must self-assess before going to the airport; if an individual is symptomatic (feverish, has a cough, and difficulty breathing), has been in contact with someone who has tested positive, or is unsure, they need to remove themselves from the flight. Likewise, before anyone boards the aircraft, the operator must sanitize the flight deck and cabin as recommended by the CDC.

Both internationally and domestic, once you land at your destination, basic needs such as lodging and food will create another challenge. As travel decreases and cities shut down, hotel rooms and food have become scarce. In the past two weeks, entire hotels have closed. Those hotels that have remained open have limited services.

In cities with shelter-in-place orders, it’s difficult to reliably and safely find food. One consideration for any trip during this crisis is to provision extra food and water for your entire crew. Foil-packed salmon with a dash of soy sauce is much better than going hungry.

The entire world and aviation system are under stress. At a human level, crew members may become more stressed. In multi-crew operations, pilots need to check on one another. In addition to keeping their families safe and healthy, many now face economic uncertainties. In less than a month, at a dizzying pace, the airline industry—along with several other industries—has gone bust.

Flying is different now. The job is much harder now. It will continue to be different and become more challenging until Covid-19 is contained. For now, take care of the details and be patient. Most important, take care of yourself and family; we’ll get through this together, apart.

Pilot, safety expert, consultant and aviation journalist Stuart “Kipp” Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached by email.