How can you know when is safe to fly, and when isn't? Andre Fodor shares some important advice that's helped him make rational decisions throughout his career, and are proving especially helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic...
No matter what station your television, radio or streaming application is tuned to, the subject will be COVID-19, and how it’s ravaging global health, the economy, and ultimately everybody’s life. Viruses are nothing new, of course. H1N1, H2N2, SARS and MERS are all virus acronyms that we’ve lived through.
Pandemics of times past have had similar global spread patterns. Nevertheless, this is scary stuff and we are all impacted by its borderless rage.
As I wrote these words, with my family quarantined at home I cruised aloft at FL430, transporting the principal’s family to their home state. Our TCAS showed very few other aircraft en route, and our routing was peppered with shortcuts. Landing at an eerily empty airport, our ADS-B receiver showed most identification tags were those of other corporate aircraft.
On returning home to the hangar, the aircraft would undergo a thorough decontamination using a bio-blocking process.
Decision-Making in Times of Crisis
While it would be easy to fill an entire column with advice on preventative measures that better protect passengers, crew and aircraft from contamination, at this time it’s the advice of a great friend and mentor that taught me the most valuable lesson, preparing me for the challenges of today’s pandemic.
Specifically, it addresses how flight crews can make good, practical, safety-conscious decisions as they inevitably face calls from executives to make trips during these trying times.
The advice of my mentor was so useful that I wrote it down on an index card a decade ago and kept it in my flight bag for whenever I needed a reminder. Recently, I took that card out, and more than ever I’m applying its pointers now. The contents of that index card is simple. It reads:
These are the foundations of my decision making, not only during the current pandemic but at all times.
Removing the Gray Areas
When flying under charter or air carrier rules, pilots are bound by regulations which have been approved and accepted during non-critical times. The OpSpecs are regulated, and the standard operating procedures define the modus-operandi of the company. Ultimately, they spell out what is expected of the crew and give them a solid footing in making flying decisions.
Private (Part 91) aviation is not so clear. The majority of operations are small and their structures often allow direct interaction between the principal/executives and pilots, who at times can feel pressured to comply with the principal’s wishes.
Such times as these are the “gray areas” my index card provides useful help in addressing. Let’s look at an example…
Years ago after a major hurricane struck, I was scheduled to fly to a Caribbean location to take some passengers to their yacht. Most of the infrastructure of the country had been impacted, including hotels and restaurants. Nevertheless, the passengers insisted on flying because their yacht was “self-sufficient”.
The concerns I shared with my crew were of poor operational support at the destination, fragile airport conditions, and a lack of available services. Applying the index card rules, I asked the three questions:
Is it LEGAL? There were no NOTAMs preventing operations there, and no airspace restrictions were in place. The airport was operational, albeit without fuel (but we wouldn’t need any on the long-range jet, anyway). And we could take our mechanic to provide support.
Is it SAFE? The airport authorities assured us that there was no civil unrest, and that the airport’s perimeter was secured and air traffic control was operational. We would be able to drop the passengers and reposition the jet during daylight.
Does it MAKE SENSE? Here was the gray area. What makes sense to me may not make sense to someone else. Priorities are different, as are perceptions.
Personally, thinking of a yacht trip while an entire nation was recovering from a hurricane made no sense to me and my crew. But then, reconciling, I was employed to transport passengers - that is why they spent money to fly privately.
The Bottom Line…
The process of reconciliation can be tough. If the ‘SAFE’ and ‘LEGAL’ aspects were not met, there would be no gray areas to address, and it would be easier to assert professional opinion. But the question of whether a flight makes sense is a matter of perspective.
This, ultimately, may be settled as long as there is mutual respect, trust and an open channel of communication between crew and passengers. Having your principal listen to your judgement requires their understanding that you are always thinking first of how to best serve them.
That will require you to keep an open mind and accept that your opinion may not be accepted or fully heard. Plant seeds – it may take time for your message to sink in. Having a practical system to assist you in working through tough decisions is essential for flying in complex times like these.
And if you don’t like the index card idea, here is another memory jogger - an attempt at poetic Haiku – we’ll leave you with:
Good decisions are
Safe, legal and not senseless.
Provide good guidelines.