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United Airlines recently announced that they have reached an amicable resolution with Dr David Dao, the passenger who was forcibly removed from a flight by Chicago aviation police.

On April 9th, Dao, who was seated on a United Express flight operated by Republic Airlines, was dragged off the aircraft after refusing to surrender his seat to must ride aircrew. A video of the incident went viral and caused an outcry around the country.

Dao’s lawyers announced that he will receive a settlement from the company, although the exact amount will remain undisclosed, as per one of the agreement provisions. Whilst United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz has admitted he ‘messed up’ with his first response to the incident, the lawyers did however call the resolution 'amicable' and stated that 'In addition, United has taken full responsibility for what happened on Flight 3411, without attempting to blame others, including the city of Chicago. For this acceptance of corporate accountability, United is to be applauded.' 

When asked whether the incident had impacted ticket sales, Munoz would only say that due to the company's high volume it was too hard to tell. However, it has been reported that his contract has been amended so that he will no longer become the carrier’s Chairman in 2018.

In the wake of the incident, United initially announced certain changes to policy, which included no longer asking law enforcement officers onto airplanes unless there are security or safety reasons. Following on from this, they have initiated at least ten other changes including reducing the number of overbooked flights and substantially increasing the incentives for passengers who give up their seats.  

Other US carriers have also been quick to react in reviewing their policies surrounding the surrendering of seats. For example, all Airlines for America (A4A) member airlines are now committed to not removing a boarded passenger from an aircraft in a bumping situation and also to ensuring that crew being transported are booked in advance.

It has been acknowledged that these changes are, in part, due to the threat from Congress to impose new regulations and to use an upcoming FAA spending bill to force airlines to make improvements. “Seize this opportunity” airline reps were told “If you don’t, we are going to come....and you aren’t going to like it”.

On May 1, 2017, relief from holding a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical certificate came into force for certain pilots.

This relief is called BasicMed and means that General Aviation (GA) pilots who take advantage of this new rule can now fly without holding an FAA medical certificate, as long as they meet certain requirements.

Up until now, the FAA has required private, recreational and student pilots to hold a current third class medical certificate. This meant completing an online application and having a physical examination with an FAA-designated Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). The medical certificate was then valid for five years for pilots under 40 and for two years for pilots aged 40 and over.

The BasicMed rule has not changed the FAA’s certificate program, as applications can still be made for a first, second or third class medical, as before. Instead, it offers GA pilots an alternative to the FAA’s medical qualification process for the third class medical certificate.

Under the new BasicMed rules, pilots have to:

  1. Comply with the general BasicMed requirements (possess a U.S. driver's license, have held a medical after July 14, 2006).
  2. Get a physical exam with a state-licensed physician, using the Comprehensive Medical Examination Checklist
  3. Complete a BasicMed medical education course;

Then they must comply with certain aircraft and operating requirements.

It should be noted, however, that new and/or student pilots who have never held a medical certificate before, or pilots that have not held a valid medical certificate after July 2006, will need to obtain a third class medical before being eligible to apply for BasicMed.

Details about BasicMed can be found on the FAA website at: https://www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/airmen_certification/basic_med/

Spirit Airlines, a low cost carrier based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida were brought to the public’s attention recently due to a fight between angry passengers who threatened their employees. The fracas began as a result of flight cancellations because of a lack of pilots, which the airline believe is due to organized action by some of their pilots, to not pick up voluntary overtime assignments.

Since February 2015, Spirit and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) who represent its pilots have been engaged in collective bargaining talks regarding the complaint that their pay is way below market levels.  However, by this April there had been a breakdown in negotiations which led, according to Spirit, to the “illegal work slowdown”. This caused around 15% of its scheduled flights to be cancelled in the first week of May, at a cost of around $8.5 million.

As U.S. labor laws do not permit employees in critical service public functions to go on strike or take part in work slowdowns, the U.S. District Court issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) on May 9th to ensure ALPA and their members restored operations.

However, while the Court also ordered a motion for a hearing on a preliminary injunction, Spirit Airlines have now stated that this is no longer necessary as an agreement has been reached with ALPA to indefinitely extend the TRO.

Although they declined to comment, Spirit said ALPA had agreed that the temporary restraining order “will remain in effect until a collective bargaining agreement is signed and ratified or, if applicable, the parties are released from mediation by the [US] National Mediation Board.”

Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS) and its fellow Lufthansa Group airlines announced that effective from 1st May 2017, they will abolish their rule requiring two people to be in a cockpit at all times.

The Lufthansa group introduced the rule as a precautionary measure following thedeliberate crashing of a Germanwings Airbus A320, in March 2015. Investigations into the crash revealed that the co-pilot, who was alone on the flight deck, intentionally switched the plane’s altitude and increased speed, which flew the aircraft into an Alpine mountain and killed all 150 people on board.

Subsequent to this, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) issued a temporary recommendation, (but not a requirement) that two crew members including at least one qualified pilot, should always occupy the cockpit during flight. Therefore if one of the two pilots left the cockpit, their place had to be taken during this time by another crew member.

In 2016, EASA revised its recommendation and offered instead the option of abolishing the two-persons-in-the-cockpit rule, provided airlines met relevant further criteria.

According to SWISS, they have conducted an extensive safety and security review in coordination with similar risk assessments by its fellow Lufthansa Group airlines. This concluded that the rule does not enhance flight safety and indeed can actually introduce additional risks to daily operations, such as more and longer openings of the cockpit door.

The carriers, comprising SWISS, Austrian and Lufthansa will therefore revert to previous cockpit access provisions, plus a number of additional safety and security measures in order to meet all of the requirements demanded by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), of any airline seeking to abolish the rule:

  • ensuring suitable selection criteria and procedures to assess the psychological and safety-relevant demands made on pilots;
  • ensuring stable employment terms and conditions for cockpit personnel;
  • giving pilots (easy) access to any psychological or other support programmes they may need;

demonstrating an ability as a company to minimize the psychological and social risks to which pilots are exposed, such as loss of licence.

SWISS have also stated that its decision to abolish the two-persons-in-the-cockpit rule is supported by the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation.

 

The French helicopter operator lobbying association, Union Française de l’Hélicoptère (UFH) have called upon the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to hold a two-year “regulatory pause” on issuing new rules.

UFH believe the publication of so many new rules is endangering the future of small operators, who struggle with the workload of reviewing and complying with so many new regulations in a short period of time.

The issuance of new regulations has been felt especially hard in France. Many operators have had to switch to twin engine flights after a rule banning single-engine commercial passenger flights was implemented, having a huge impact on both pricing and performance.

UFH stated that since 2011, around 10 - 15% of operators have gone due to “the economic context, the lack of a stable regulatory prospect and insufficient political support”.

The President of the European Helicopter Association (EHA) Jaime Arque agreed but added that the new rules issued recently was the result of a backlog of rulemaking.

In response, EASA say they have agreed to a cool down period and have already begun to lessen the rulemaking activity on new regulations. Eric Bennett, EASA’s Air Operations Regulations Officer stated “EASA now has to ensure the maintenance of existing rules.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is an independent federal agency dedicated to promoting aviation, railroad, highway, marine and pipeline safety.

They recently released a special report based on their investigations into the effectiveness of pilot weather reports (PIREPs). PIREPs are brief reports from pilots describing observed in-flight weather conditions. Because they provide in situ observations they are an important source of information for weather forecasters when assessing the quality of their forecasts and improving graphical weather products used by pilots.

Historically, it has been found that general aviation aircraft involved in poor visibility, weather-related accidents have a higher fatality rate than all other types of accidents. Additionally, accidents on US air carrier flights that involve in-flight turbulence account for the most injuries to passengers and flight attendants. Therefore the NTSB feel that complete, accurate and timely weather information is essential to support flight safety for all aircraft operations.

To compile the report, the NTSB investigated 16 specific accidents and incidents that exposed PIREP-related areas of concern, between March 2012 and December 2015. They also held discussions with members of various PIREP user groups, including hosting a two day forum to illicit information.

The culmination of this research revealed deficiencies in the handling of PIREP information that resulted in delays, errors and data losses. It found that the effectiveness of PIREPs was being reduced, generally, for one of two reasons:

Submission issues i.e. pilots are not providing enough (or incomplete) PIREPs and air traffic controllers not consistently soliciting them when weather conditions mandated such services.

Dissemination issues i.e. ATC, flight service station, or company personnel who handle PIREPs causing delays and errors or even failing to distribute the information.

As a result of this special investigation, the NTSB made safety recommendations

to the FAA, the NWS, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association Air Safety Institute, the Aviation Accreditation Board International, the National Association of Flight Instructors, the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators, and the Cargo Airline Association.

The NTSB report concludes that stressing the importance of PIREPs during pilot training, creating standard criteria for reporting weather conditions and better handling of the reports when they are received by ATC, are some of the positive actions that could improve the system.

Ultimately, the NTSB believes that the actions recommended in their report “....will not only enhance safety in the near term within the constraints of the current PIREP system but also will serve as the foundation for supporting the long-term solutions associated with NextGen and other emerging technologies.”

The full NTSB report can be found here.

Malaysia Airlines recently announced that it has become the first airline to sign up for a new satellite tracking system to monitor all of its flights around the world, even in the remotest areas.

The satellites will show real-time position updates for all flights and has been developed by a partnership of three companies, FlightAware, SITANOAIR and Aireon. 

The tracking service, which will be available in 2018, adds Aireon’s space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) data, via FlightAware, to Sitaonair’s Aircom FlightTracker. Aireon’s space-based ADS-B data will also fill in the gaps in information for aircraft operations centers, especially over remote airspace such as oceanic areas, where no surveillance is currently in place.

Paul Gibson of SITAONAIR stated “With access to up-to-the-minute reporting, Malaysia Airlines will know the location, heading, speed and altitude of all aircraft in its fleet, at all times, and be alerted to any exceptions,”

Once the system starts operating, any airlines already using the Aircom FlightTracker will automatically have the new Aireon data updated to their systems, as the service requires no new avionics or aircraft modifications.

The shortage of pilots within the U.S. Air Force has been an issue for years. Although it appeared to only affect fighter pilots, with the USAF claiming they are short of 21% of the pilots they need (around 1200 of these jobs need filling), even supplies of aviators for the Air Mobility Command, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard are on the wane.

According to AMC commander Gen. Carlton Everhart, nearly 1,600 Air Force pilots will become eligible to leave the service in the next four years, with the retention rate currently around 50% - which is 10% lower than they would choose to retain.

The USAF is blaming much of this mass departure on the US airline industry hiring spree. Military pilots have the training and flight hours necessary to fly for the major airlines, without having to work for smaller regional airlines first. One of the benefits of working for the major airlines is that they offer a higher salary than the Air Force and in 2007, the FAA increased the mandatory retirement age for pilots to 65, giving them a longer and therefore more lucrative, career path.

In addition, although the USAF have reduced additional training and extra duties for airmen, so that they can have more free time and better their quality of life, airline pilots have the stability of knowing their flying schedule in advance and having long periods at home with their families, rather than being on call 24 hours a day.

With all this in mind the Air Force are keen to come up with ways to keep military pilots in service for longer and one idea put forward is to increase retention bonuses. Because major airlines work on a seniority system, the best opportunity for salary growth in the major airlines occurs for military pilots who leave after their initial service obligation. Currently military personnel who agree to stay in service are eligible for an annual bonus, capped at a maximum of $25,000 - a sum that hasn’t changed since 1999. If this figure could be raised for those who agree to stay a further 13 years, along with allowing one or two year extensions in addition to the five and nine year extensions it already offers, the military hopes the interest in remaining in service would increase.

Taking into account the cost of training a fighter pilot is estimated to be in the region of $12.5 million, the Air Force are also looking at other ways to keep hold of their personnel. To do this they are moving ahead with plans to discuss with the airlines, ways for its pilots to interrupt military service and fly with them in a commercial capacity. During a House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee hearing on March 29, Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services explained that the Air Force is exploring an intermission program that would allow pilots to fly certain seasons with an airline company, while keeping their military flying options open.

Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso stated: “Our senior leaders are going to start collaborating with the airlines in May to see if we can get a public-private partnership and what that might look like, so I think that’s where you’ll see we are going.”

Ultimately, the military are hoping that playing field will have levelled enough so that leaving a military career becomes a much tougher decision. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have announced that from April 14th, 2017 restrictions will apply to drone flights within the boundaries of 133 military facilities.

Using their authority under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) § 99.7 – “Special Security Instructions” they have introduced this to address national security concerns about unauthorized drone operations over military areas.

The FAA and the Department of Defense have said that unauthorized drone flights up to 400 feet within the lateral boundaries of these facilities will now be prohibited – this is in addition to flights above 400 feet by unmanned vehicles, which are already forbidden without special authorization.

The result of the new restriction will be to prohibit drone flights during the hours in which a restricted area is not in effect or a part-time control tower is closed.

The only exceptions to these rules must be agreed and coordinated with the individual facility and/or the FAA and drone operators who breach the airspace limitations could be liable for criminal charges or civil penalties.

The FAA have stated that to make sure the public is aware of these restricted locations, they have created an online interactive map for drone operators.  The link can be found at uas-faa.opendata.arcgis.com or through the FAA’s B4UFLY mobile app

Over the past few years there has been concern regarding a growing shortage of pilots. On March 8th, SkyWest Inc. President and CEO Chip Childs warned the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that he feared this could soon become significantly more pronounced.

While SkyWest, the US’s largest regional airline operator, have so far been able to hire sufficient pilot numbers, Childs said that he feared smaller regional airlines are having increased difficulty finding qualified pilots. He added that the shortage will more likely than not start to affect SkyWest in the next 3 years.

Childs, along with experts from the aviation industry, predict that major US airlines will need to hire around 18,000 pilots in the next three years to infill for retirements. As the major airlines primarily hire from the regional workforce, Childs warned that “There are a lot of retirements at the majors and we simply don’t have the backfill.”

The pilot shortage problem has been partly blamed on the FAA’s Congressionally mandated rule, requiring pilots to accumulate 1,500 flight hours before becoming a First Officer at a Part 121 US airline. This has escalated the cost of becoming a commercial pilot and regarding this point, Childs told the Committee “We need some loan programs for pilots”.

At the same hearing, Alaska Airlines president and CEO Brad Tilden agreed with Childs, saying, “I just want to support Chip Childs on the pilot training … Student loans [for pilots] guaranteed by the federal government … would be beneficial.”

Conversely, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) have always denied any idea of a pilot shortage. While the union admits to the scale of the upcoming retirements at US major airlines, it believes that that the problem for pilots at US regional airlines is mainly one of compensation levels and quality of the work environment. In response, Childs said there has been a “tremendous move and shift [to higher] compensation in the last few years”.

Worst case scenario resulting from the shortage appears to be that large numbers of aircraft in US regional airlines’ fleets could be grounded. This would create a huge loss in service to smaller US markets and ultimately restrict the expansion of new services to more rural areas in the US. 

On March 21, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its annual Aerospace Forecast Report Fiscal Years 2017 to 2037, which is developed to support the budget and planning needs of the FAA.

While this year’s document contains updated forecasts for US airline traffic and capacity, FAA workload, General Aviation activity and pilots, it also has a new forecast focussing on Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) fleet - or drones and remote pilots.

The forecasts are developed using statistical models to explain and incorporate emerging trends of the different segments of the aviation industry. This year’s report projects sustained and continued growth in nearly every aspect of air transportation, from large commercial airline passenger levels, to General Aviation private flying.

In commercial air travel, changes made by US carriers have resulted in a seventh consecutive year of profitability for the industry in 2016. The FAA stated that “Looking ahead there is confidence that the industry has been transformed from that of a boom-to-bust cycle to one of sustainable profits”.

The 2017 forecast calls for US carrier passenger growth over the next 20 years to average 1.9% per year, slightly lower than last year’s forecast. Revenue Passenger Miles (RPMs, which represent one revenue passenger traveling one mile) by mainline and regional air carriers are forecast to grow at an average rate of 2.4% per year between 2016 and 2037, with international RPMs projected for average annual increases of 3.4% per year.

In General Aviation (GA), the fleet is expected to expand 0.1% per year between 2016 and 2037. While this growth is minimal, general aviation hours flown are forecast to increase by an average of 0.9% per year. The FAA therefore feels the long term outlook for GA is “stable to optimistic”.

A brand new part of the forecast looks at the growth in the use of drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Predictions are extremely difficult to estimate given the very quickly expanding market, so the FAA have provided high and low ranges around the small hobby drone fleet, while forecasts for the commercial area are given based on certain broad assumptions and taking into account existing regulations.

Full details regarding the FAA Aerospace forecasts can be found here.