Rusty pilots, lighter-than-normal aircraft and new procedures have combined to create some anxious moments for passengers and crews as the airline industry coped with the coronavirus pandemic, according to Bloomberg. The news agency said the Commercial Aviation Safety Team, made up of representatives from the FAA, unions and airlines, has issued about 50 safety warnings about the unusual factors operators face in coping with the pandemic. Takeoff weights have been dramatically reduced because of the scant passenger loads and aircraft have been scraping tails and busting initial altitude assignments after takeoff. There has also been an uptick in course deviations and other in-flight anomalies reported to the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), the tip line run by NASA that allows flight crews to report incidents anonymously.
So far there haven’t been any serious incidents but the FAA says it’s keeping a close eye on the industry while coping with its own pandemic-related issues, including high rates of infection in ATC facilities that have caused sudden shutdowns and snap changes in ATC procedures. Airports have closed whole sections of their fields to accommodate parked aircraft and that’s led to an increase in ground incidents. “Change and unpredictability is not a good thing in our system,” said Teri Bristol, the head of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO). A lot of the issues coming to light occurred in March in the early days of the pandemic but the agency is continuing to monitor for safety issues as the recovery begins. “We are closely monitoring the data we receive from voluntary reporting systems and have increased the number of information-sharing meetings we’re holding with operators,” the agency said in a statement.