EU aviation regulator prepares to get planes back in skies

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on Monday (4 May) started advising airports on how to resume operations, after the coronavirus outbreak grounded a majority of flights. Operators will have to check for debris and wild animals, among a slew of other points.

Most of Europe’s airports are currently serving as glorified parking areas, as air travel demand has plummeted due to the pandemic. Airlines are running heavily reduced timetables or have grounded their fleets completely.

Lithuania’s main airport, near the capital Vilnius, even turned part of one runway into a drive-in cinema, to take advantage of the reduction in flights.

EASA took the first step towards resuming business as usual today though, by issuing guidance to all 31 of its member states. The comprehensive checklist contains a number of measures that the regulator says must be completed before planes take off again.

“Although it is not defined yet when operations will restart, it is important that aerodromes are prepared in order to resume operations safely,” EASA says in its note, adding that airports must come up with plans based on its recommendations.

Spring cleaning

The regulator advises operators to first check runways and taxiing areas for debris, signs of damage and plant growth, which could obscure markers and lights.

Several high-profile aviation crashes have been caused by foreign objects on runways, most notably the Air France Concorde crash in July 2000, which killed all 109 people on board and hastened the demise of the supersonic jet programme.

EASA also says that runways should be checked for depressions that could be caused by the long-term storage of aircraft, as the paved surfaces are not designed to carry hundreds of tonnes of airliner for an extended period of time.

Tel Aviv airport recently needed maintenance work after an Airbus A350 began sinking into the tarmac, while some of the more than 10,000 planes parked around Europe may be causing similar damage.

The guidance note also says operators should check for the “presence of wildlife, which might have increased in the absence of regular operations”.

Pictures and video of animals in areas that are normally full of human activity have made the rounds on social media since the outbreak began, including wild boar on the streets of Northern Italian towns, goats in a Welsh village and dolphins in a Sardinian port.

Airports are used to contending with the potentially dangerous presence of birds – which can fly into engines or windows – but larger creatures such as deer might also have moved into the vast green areas around runways.

The guiding note offers no advice on what to do with animals that have moved in. NGO BirdLife Europe told EURACTIV that “it’s important to call a local animal rescue centre who can ensure that the birds and their young are removed safely from the nest to a safe place”.

MAX’d out

EASA itself is not immune to the outbreak’s impact on workflow, as the Cologne-based agency relies heavily on cross-border experts and site visits to regulate EU aviation. It may soon have to look into how planes can accommodate passengers and cargo in the same cabin space, after carriers signalled that they might move towards hybrid flights.

But the regulator’s most high-profile ongoing issue is the recertification of Boeing’s MAX aircraft, which were involved in two deadly crashes and have been grounded worldwide since March 2019. EASA has insisted its own inquest is necessary to approve the plane for use in Europe.

A spokesperson told EURACTIV that although “work is progressing despite the lockdown” there is no firm timetable in place for test flights.

The regulator has in the past relied on the findings of its US-equivalent, the FAA, but given the delicate nature of the MAX case and the controversy surrounding its initial approval, EASA has insisted on conducting its own in-depth inquest.

An even-longer delay in its return to service will worsen an already dire situation for Boeing – which is reporting record losses – and affect the long-term plans of airline like Ryanair, which are still committed to large-scale MAX orders.


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