What the pandemic did not stop:

It is not a secret that aviation is an industry exposed to multiple risks. Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin empire, made it clear in one of his most famous quotes: “If you want to become a millionaire, start with a billion and launch a new airline.” Indeed, during its brief and intense history, air transport has been involved in numerous crises of varying depths, both economic (the 1973 oil crisis and the 2008 financial crisis) and security-related (Lockerbie and 9/11). However, the most significant historical challenge for the sector did not originate in the economic or security spheres but in the health sector. A new infectious disease, named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization, dealt an unprecedented blow to the industry.

It took more than a year and a half for aviation to show clear signs of recovery. Although the road ahead remains uncertain, aviation is resolutely regaining its pulse. The days of half-empty airspace worldwide are gone, with only a handful of flights (mainly cargo and repatriation flights) taking off every hour.

Difference between flights in Europe 2019 vs. 2020. Source: own elaboration based on FlightRadar24.com.
The closures of the border in most countries and the restrictions imposed by the authorities in their eagerness to stop the spread of COVID-19 have devastated air travel. Faced with forced inactivity, except in a few particular cases (such as cargo airlines), airlines had to take drastic measures to avoid what, in some cases, would have meant sudden bankruptcy. Thus, the wave of layoffs (temporary or permanent) did not take long to become a reality. In Spain, the figure of the ERTE, the temporary layoff plan, became the ideal mechanism to maintain the employment relationship without the airlines having to pay their salaries. More than twenty months later, the labor reality for thousands of workers in the sector is still that of the ERTE.
T4 at Madrid-Barajas airport, empty during the lockout. Credit: Shutterstock.
The sharp drop in airline activity grounded much of the world’s aircraft fleet. Cirium put the number of commercial aircraft grounded due to the crisis at 16,000, approximately two-thirds of the global fleet. This circumstance added a significant challenge to an already highly complex situation since having a minimum level of activity is imperative for professionals such as pilots or air traffic controllers to maintain their expertise.

Simulators, whose prominence is often related to emergency training or abnormal procedures, acquired an even more relevant role in the face of the paralysis of aviation due to the pandemic. “Pilot training is a key aspect of the profession and has played a special role in the recovery from the worst months of the pandemic. Simulator training has been key to meeting the authority’s requirements regarding maintaining our licenses, ratings, and competencies,” said Carlos Garcia Molaguero, spokesperson for Copac, the Spanish Commercial Aviation Pilots’ Association.

Transcript: «If there is one thing that is clear to all of us pilots, it is that in this profession we never stop training and, therefore, learning. Pilot training is a key aspect in our profession and has had a special role in the recovery of air activity after the worst months of the pandemic. In fact, training in simulators has been key in this sense, firstly, to comply with the requirements demanded by the authorities regarding the maintenance of our licenses and ratings, which are subject to deadlines, deadlines that, although they were relaxed during the hardest months of confinement at the beginning of the pandemic, have now been regularized. Secondly, training in simulators has allowed us to maintain our skills and abilities or as it is called, evidence-based training systems EBT, which are gradually being implemented in the environment of EASA. Undoubtedly, this training has been essential after a generalized cessation of activity especially in the air transport sector caused by the already known restrictive mobility measures imposed by governments worldwide.»

As in the case of pilots, air traffic controllers also used simulators to cope with exceptional situations. “The simulators allowed us to maintain expertise as we faced a one-of-a-kind traffic reduction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They have also been crucial in the training processes for recruits, as the real traffic was much less than usual. Thanks to the simulation, it has been possible to practice the operation with a similar workload to the one we will face when we reach the much-desired full recovery,” highlighted Celia Pulgar, spokesperson of Aprocta, the Spanish Air Traffic Controllers’ Professional Association.

Transcript: «The continuous training of controllers includes simulator training sessions in which we have the opportunity to train our response to infrequent or exceptional situations, contingencies and emergencies that fortunately do not occur on a day-to-day basis. The use of simulators allows us to be prepared for any eventuality, to reinforce how we should act in unforeseen situations or situations that are not part of the usual routine. Moreover, in a situation of traffic reduction as anomalous as the one caused by COVID-19, it has allowed us to maintain expertise. Especially in those cases of colleagues with less experience prior to the drop in operations, it has been crucial in the training processes of new staff members, since the real traffic was much less than usual and only thanks to the simulation it has been possible to practice the operation with a similar workload to the one we will face when we reach the much desired full recovery.»

Simulators 24/7
Mexico City, with almost 22 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area, is the largest city in North America. One of the most striking aspects for first-time visitors is the number of helicopters that operate in the city daily, with a high concentration in the financial heart of Reforma and other high-income neighborhoods such as Santa Fe and Polanco. The reason for the presence of this type of aircraft is that, for the more affluent, air travel is the best way to get around one of the capital’s biggest problems: traffic jams.
View of one of the hundreds of heliports in Mexico City. Credit: Shutterstock.
Although Mexico did not take drastic measures compared to other countries, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic did cause an almost total shutdown of its most populous city during the first wave. The streets were emptied, the great avenues had no cars, and the constant traffic stopped. In addition, businesses shuttered, many for good, and only a handful of lucky ones could work from home. The Airbus training center in the Mexican capital was one of the few exceptions. “In the case of Mexico, the aerospace industry was declared an essential sector from the beginning of the pandemic, which helped keep our operations going,” explains Jesús Durán, General Manager of the Airbus Mexico Training Centre.

Transcript: «In the specific case of Mexico, the aviation industry was declared an essential sector from the onset of the pandemic, which helped our operations at the training center in Mexico City to stay on track as aviation activity began to recover in the country, driven primarily by low-cost airlines in the domestic market. Flight simulators were essential to drive this reactivation with the highest safety standards and it is worth noting that during the pandemic, flight simulators have been instrumental in maintaining the competencies and capabilities of aircrews to operate A320 family aircraft. And as I mentioned, both Viva Aerobus and Volaris operate 100% A320 family aircraft.»

Photo caption: One of the simulators at the Airbus Mexico Training Centre. Credit: Shutterstock.
“During the pandemic, the flight simulators have been fundamental to maintain the competencies and capabilities of the crews to operate the aircraft,” noted Jesús Durán, general manager of the Airbus Mexico Training Centre. This training center, in which Airbus has, among others, three state-of-the-art A320 family simulators, operated at total capacity during the pandemic, with continuous 24-hour service to meet the needs of the pilots of the two Mexican airlines that base their operations on this manufacturer’s aircraft, Viva Aerobus and Volaris. “During the pandemic, the flight simulators have been essential to maintaining the skills and abilities of the crews to operate the aircraft,” explained Durán, who not only highlights the value of these tools in the face of the drop in activity but, above all, as a way to help to overcome the crisis: “Mexico has seen a more agile and sustained recovery in air traffic compared to other countries in the region, which is a response to the policy of not closing borders and the important work of Mexican air operators to reactivate the sector. For this reason, we need to maintain our pilot training services in the face of the full recovery of the airline industry.”
The role of simulators goes far beyond the pandemic. As we have seen, their use and proper functioning are indispensable for air transport safety. This is what justifies the significant investments in this specialized industry. How can a computer recreate reality so faithfully that it is accurate and valid for real flight training? How does the meticulous work developed in the simulators directly relate to job performance? Do not miss the next chapter of this special report.