From repatriations to surgical masks
In Belgium, the relief was palpable when a Boeing 747 taxied into Liege Airport on March 20th, a little before one in the morning. It was carrying five million much-needed sanitary and surgical masks, to be distributed in hospitals and pharmacies across the country. ASL Group, chartering the flight from ASL Airlines, was responsible for the coordination and distribution of this mission.
“After that first flight, some of our own people actually loaded some masks in their own vehicles, to distribute across the country – making sure the masks got to their destination as quickly as possible,” Maxime shared. “We’re expecting the last load tonight, probably around 7 million.”
But that’s not the only thing ASL Group has been doing to support the crisis. Many people find themselves stranded outside their home country as cities go into lockdown, one after the other. Entire fleets of commercial airlines are grounded due to the travel restrictions and closed borders, and they find themselves turning to business aviation.
“One of the greatest assets of business aviation is being able to offer this flexibility and connectivity,” Maxime explains. “We’re trying to work closely with governments and embassies to get people back into their country. Dispatching an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 737 to get ten people out of a specific location is a very costly exercise, especially for a small amount of people – and may not always be possible due to potential operational limitations. And that’s when our smaller planes, that can handle shorter runways, come in very handy.”
However, when a plane makes a repatriation journey, only one way of the two-way flight is filled. According to Maxime, ASL Group has decided to offer all empty leg flights to be free of charge to all medical personnel, diplomats, and government officials to help combat the COVID-19 crisis – in accordance with all updated safety and health measures.
“This is our way of contributing to the crisis,” Maxime clarifies. “Business aviation is a vital industry, and we can offer the flexibility and the reactivity that major airlines and cargo operators can’t always offer. We adapt very quickly to changing situations, so now is the time to offer that expertise and reactivity. We also have a role to play.”
Flying in strange times
But although ASL Group has pooled most of its resources to help the crisis, there are still a few flights that remain truly essential, outside of the pandemic.
“One of our specialties is executing medical flights, and this is currently a challenge,” Maxime elaborates. “We are key in organ transport, working together with a number of hospitals in Belgium and the Netherlands. We have almost weekly flights scheduled to pick up organs and bring them to another location in Europe. It’s very important to continue these flights, because there’s a whole waiting list of people for organ transplants. The current travel bans definitely have to alleviate for medical missions – this is about saving lives.”
As a pilot, Maxime also has a first-person view on what it’s like flying during the COVID-19 pandemic: “We had to execute a medical flight, the evening of the lockdown announcement in Belgium. We were transporting two lungs from Germany back to Belgium, and we left Brussels Airport around nine in the evening. Usually it’s full of activity, but now it was completely empty. The atmosphere was very strange. The medical team accompanying the lungs told us of the first COVID-19 cases entering the hospitals. It felt so surreal.”
After that evening, Maxime also had to execute a repatriation flight to Girona, Spain – one of the hardest-hit regions in Spain.
“The airport was, again, completely empty. There were also very little aircraft present on the radio frequency,” he recalls. “Usually everyone is very open and friendly in such a sunny location, but now, everyone was very downcast, and grim. It was a heavy experience. It’s very strange to be flying in these times, but I’m glad we can continue supporting those that really need it.”
Less flights, more work
Despite being a crucial component to the COVID-19 infrastructure, the business aviation industry has experienced a number of challenges linked to the pandemic. With all the travel restrictions and airport closures, planning each flight is a struggle.
“Each mission requires at least four times more planning than before, because of all the bans, restrictions and protocol,” Maxime explains. “We have to double and triple-check our sources if we’re actually allowed to fly. On top of that, you have to check what other countries are saying as well. Otherwise, you can find your crew and passengers put into a 14-day quarantine the moment they set foot in the other country. It’s a huge operational challenge.”
Another challenge was air traffic control. A lot of countries are so far into lockdown that their main airlines have stopped flying. Flights usually have ATC or airport slots booked because of the congestion, but now there are slots for a whole other reason. Airports and airspaces are working at minimum capacity with sometimes one person supervising the whole airport or region – enough to overload them.
“We’re down from thirty flights a week to three flights a week,” Maxime states. “And we have no idea what will happen from one week to the next.
In addition to operational challenges, there’s a human factor as well: “The most important thing in a company is your people,” Maxime declares. “The frontline operators are the ones on the ground, cleaning, towing, fuelling the aircraft. They can’t work from home, so it’s important to guarantee their safety. We’re taking all the necessary measures to protect them, and in turn, they will protect our customers. The same goes for our pilots and cabin crew who are to carry out their duties and assist passengers, regardless of the pandemic, but with increased safety measures, of course. They too do an incredible job”
Everyone is battling the current crisis, but there will be a moment when the borders re-open, and business resumes its regular pace. Business aviation companies will have to manage that as well – especially since there might be a surge in demand.
“There are a lot of things we don’t know will happen. But major commercial operators are fully grounded at the moment – something we’ve never seen before,” Maxime observes. “I hope most of them survive, but some might not. And business aviation might have the advantage of bouncing back and being airborne a lot quicker than regular airlines.”
“On top of that,” he speculates, “as a reaction to the pandemic, many people may want to avoid large airports and crowds, at least for a while. We may need to anticipate that those who hadn’t considered business aviation in the past, might change their minds after COVID-19, and be willing to invest a little more for their safety and comfort. We need to be ready for that, while the airlines bounce back in turn as well.”
Proving the value of business aviation
“We have the option of being extremely flexible, connecting people and communities,” Maxime elaborates on what business aviation can bring to the crisis. “Our network is almost unlimited. Business aviation is the industry leader in innovation and safety systems. And now is the time to prove that.”
“There’s a glamorous perception of business aviation, but that definitely doesn’t tell the whole story. We have a purpose. We’re flying medical flights, we’re repatriating people. We play a role in communities, and we’re helping people fight this virus. The efficiency, reactivity, and availability is a part of our DNA,” Maxime continues.
“Now, more than ever, business aviation can help with the actions taken across Europe and on a global scale. We have the capacity to adapt our operations to whatever is required. It’s up to us to do our part, and up to governments and regulators to help us,” he concludes.