May 15, 2020 / 2:57 PM / 20 days ago

As Air France restores some flights, pilots queue for simulator

PARIS (Reuters) - Air France (AIRF.PA) is putting its grounded pilots through their paces in the flight simulator as the airline prepares to restore flights to dozens of destinations that had been suspended under coronavirus lockdown measures.

An Air France pilot wearing a protective mask trains in an Airbus A350 flight simulator at an Air France training centre near Charles de Gaulle airport as European safety rules require extra training for any pilot that has not carried out at least three take-offs and landings over the last three months, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak near Paris, France, May 15, 2020. REUTERS/Noemie Olive

The French carrier, part of Air France-KLM, plans to increase capacity to about 10% of normal levels by mid-June from 3-5% today, Jean Fernandez, executive vice-president for flight operations, said on Friday.

Airlines face a new challenge as they make tentative plans to resume services: finding simulator time for thousands of pilots to maintain their skills and qualifications. Germany’s Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) on Thursday outlined its own plans to return to dozens of destinations next month.

European safety rules require extra training for any pilot who has not carried out at least three take-offs and landings in the last three months, and Air France sets its own bar higher at five take-offs and landings.

“Pilots need to fly regularly to maintain their skills at the highest level,” Fernandez said during a training session at an Air France facility near Charles de Gaulle airport.

Airlines with more limited training and simulator resources that may struggle to meet the three-month rule can benefit from “temporary alleviations on a case-by-case basis”, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said.

Captain Emmanuel Mistrali, a 25-year Air France veteran, and his co-pilot were running through challenging scenarios from engine failures to high winds in the Airbus (AIR.PA) A350 simulator on Friday, closely watched by a flight instructor.

Mistrali, out of action since his last flight to Sao Paolo three weeks ago, said the simulator sessions offer a welcome chance to “regain contact with a world we’ve been missing”.

Air France said some 2,000-2,500 of its 4,000 pilots are likely to fly in May-June, with the drastically reduced flight schedule distributed evenly among them.

Before returning to the air, they also run through software-based training to test their recollection of key procedures - but Mistrali said there was no substitute for cockpit time.

“What is missing when you’re on the ground is the routines, the reflexes, your sixth sense and the crew teamwork,” he said.

By mid-June Air France aims to restore about 600 flights per week to 110 destinations, travel restrictions permitting - still far short of its usual weekly tally of more than 7,000 services to 196 destinations. It is currently operating 200-300 weekly flights on 43 routes.

Between now and then, the airline’s 17 simulators will be busy but not over-stretched, Fernandez said. “They are always in high demand.”

Over the coming month Air France capacity should return to “something like 10%” of normal levels, he added. “One thing we can be sure of is that the recovery will be slow.”

Reporting by Laurence Frost and Noemie Olive; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Louise Heavens

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