As fears of airline pilot shortages become real, DAVID LEARMOUNT reports from the 2018 RAeS International Flight Crew Training Conference, held on 25-26 September.

After a succession of false alarms over about 20 years, the much-heralded shortage of airline pilots has finally arrived.
As a result, airlines are being forced reluctantly into strategic recruitment planning – instead of tactical hiring – and approved training organisations (ATO) are simultaneously licking their lips and worrying about how to attract and retain enough high quality instructors. At the same time, in Europe, a major change in pilot training and flight crew licencing (FCL) philosophy is taking place.

If proof of the shortage were needed, here it is: Ryanair has begun a process of pilot and cabin crew union recognition after decades of hostility toward organised labour. It has also just announced the first of half-a-dozen contracts for pilot cadetship with ATOs across Europe, ensuring it has a supply of airline-ready copilots. The first is with Cork, Ireland-based Atlantic Flight Training Academy, which will produce 450 Ryanair-ready co-pilots over the next five years.

Training modernised

Latest intake of Ryanair pilots. The budget carrier is now actively recruiting for more aircrew after it was hit pilot shortage hit last year. (Ryanair) 

Meanwhile the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is preparing to oversee a modernisation of flight crew training philosophies that have been resistant to change ever since WW2. So it was not entirely a matter of coincidence that – at this year’s RAeS International Flight Crew Training Conference (IFCTC) in September – the theme was ‘A new era in pilot training and assessment’.

It turns out that the industry has finally – after 12 years of argument, study and a great deal of thought – agreed what it needs to do to modernise pilot training. All it has to do now is to make it happen.

When the first RAeS IFCTC happened in 2006, its theme – ‘Meeting tomorrow’s challenges’ – suggested a need for change had been recognised, and that the discussion on how it should be achieved should begin. Simultaneously at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) ideas for a new training system and licence specifically intended to produce pilots with a complete skill-set for the right hand seat of an airliner were being examined. This was done on the basis that the old commercial pilot licence/instrument rating (CPL/IR), completed solo on light piston twins, was not producing crew suitable for the modern digital flight deck in high-performance jets, even if an additional training module providing a multi-crew co-operation and jet orientation course (MCC/JOC) was bolted on the end.

A change in philosophy

The demand for pilots over the next 20 years - as forecasted by Boeing. (Boeing)

The now-established Multi-crew Pilot Licence (MPL) was the result of those ICAO deliberations. Meanwhile, back at the 2006 IFCTC conference, delegates included many experienced, middle-aged pilots still reluctant to see changes in the training system that had served them well. Yet, out in the operating environment, loss of control in flight (LOC-I) had become established as the biggest killer accident category and debates raged about the proposed need for upset prevention and recovery training (UPRT), the effects of automation on piloting skills and the increasing use of simulation in ab-initio training.

Thus the talking-shop began. Today, with principles like competency-based training and assessment (CBTA) and evidence-based training (EBT) almost universally accepted, traditional training philosophies have been upended.

It is as a result of work co-ordinated through the RAeS, EASA and ICAO that necessary change is now sweeping into the training industry and the airlines. It is pure coincidence that this is occurring at the same time as the arrival of a genuine pilot shortage but the need to simultaneously to increase training output considerably while make major changes to pilot training philosophy and instructional delivery is not going to make life easier.

In January this year EASA triggered its plan for phasing in a total change in pilot training philosophy over four years. By 31 January 2022 ‘at the latest’ all airline training departments and air transport operators in EASA countries must have implemented the changes, insists the Agency. By that date, successful pilot trainees will be graduating with their theoretical knowledge tested against a completely updated question bank.

The overall training philosophy changes entail moving away from traditional ‘silo learning and testing’ toward competency-based training and from rote learning toward scenario-based teaching that confers understanding, not just factual knowledge. A new EASA concentration on ‘Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes’ (KSA) embodies this philosophy change, the reference to ‘Attitude’ indicating the need to select students for their approach to the learning process, which may speak volumes about their personal suitability for the job.

EASA observed a couple of years ago: ‘Current teaching and learning tools are not sufficiently developed to encourage future pilots to use analytic and synthetic thinking or to challenge student pilots to enhance their decision-making skills, their problem-solving ability, and their level of understanding of assimilated knowledge.’

In the US, which does not have a system for training pilots ab-initio straight into an airline co-pilot’s job, retains a more traditional hours-based approach for preparing pilots for airline flying. Principles like CBTA, however, are gradually being embedded in their system. Meanwhile, reacting to evidential shortcomings in pilot performance, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also demands piecemeal changes like a revised training for stall recovery.

An interesting observation about subjects addressed at this year’s IFCTC is that nobody raised the issue of replacing pilots with automation, a matter that had been discussed in previous years. At a time of increasing demand for air travel, a need for improved – and possibly more expensive – pilot training, plus the prospect of higher flight crew pay as a response to the shortage of pilots, automation would seem to be a particularly attractive idea right now. Yet the subject was not raised.

Speeding up training

Can lower cost flight training devices help make training more affordable? (Multi Pilot Simulations)

The conference clearly accepted that quality pilots cannot be trained properly in a shorter time than they already are, thus it focused on proposals for making pilot training more efficient and effective. At present it is clearly not efficient, because the existing CPL/IR course churns out legally licensed airline pilots only about half of whom are good enough to be employed by a conscientious airline. That was a verdict delivered at the IFCTC last year by Ryanair’s head of flight training Capt Andy O’Shea, also the chairman of Europe’s Aircrew Training Policy Group (ATPG).

It seems that, although the new pilot training process will still begin with groundschool and basic theory, followed by familiar airborne routines like learning the effects of controls and discovering how to maintain straight and level flight in a simple aircraft, the task of today’s instructors is to engender within their students the ‘nine core behaviours’ pilots need to demonstrate to be judged competent – eventually – to receive a pilot licence. These are:

● Application of knowledge
● Application of regulations and procedures
● Communication
● Aeroplane flight path management – Automation
● Aeroplane flight path management – Manual
● Leadership & teamwork
● Problem solving and decision-making
● Situational awareness and information management
● Workload management

This demonstrates a total shift from syllabus-based exercises and knowledge checks to an outcome-based assessment of whether student pilots can demonstrate that their newly-acquired knowledge and skills enable them to deliver the required performance. The knowledge and skills delivery now will be more flexible, with theory learning moving along in harmony with airborne experience plus exercises in FNPTs (flight and navigation procedure trainers). It is the opposite philosophy to swotting all the theory furiously in one go, then taking a multiple-choice question examination and ticking the boxes.

This involves a massive change in instruction style, an issue that emerged loud and clear at the IFCTC this year. Instructors have to move from being the teacher and examiner to being a trainer, facilitator and assessor – more of a tutorial relationship. Above all there was agreement that training needs to be delivered individually to each student because they all have different backgrounds, educations and learning styles.

If this sounds like imposing an impossible instructor workload increase at a time of rapidly rising demand, CAE’s global leader training standards Capt David Owens – formerly of Airbus – argued that individual mentoring is actually efficient because, without close attention, students may scrape through several learning stages with insufficient understanding and, while this can go unnoticed at the time, the resulting poor performance will emerge later and demand costly and time-consuming additional training. However, with the necessary attention, Owens argued, a student should progress seamlessly through the course.


Are airlines getting offered the right sort of pilots from training schools? (British Airways) 

Another enormous improver of training efficiency, the conference heard, is high-quality student selection. Self-selected students who bypass the proffered selection process while waving dollars at an ATO can turn out to be totally unsuitable for the professional airline piloting role. The failures can result from the candidate’s unsuitable personality type, or physical and mental aptitude, or learning ability, or all three. An unsuitable student devours instructor time and ATO resources for no good purpose.

Lufthansa revealed that the training industry has observed a dramatic difference between success rates for those who do not undergo proper selection and those who pass extensive psychological testing for selection. Among the un-tested candidates, only 40% make seamless progress through training, 30% need additional training and 30% fail terminally. Among those who pass the selection process, 96% make normal progress through to graduation; 1% need additional training and 3% face training termination. So, selection equals massively improved efficiency.

Capt Philip Adrian, formerly of Boeing and now CEO of Multi-Pilot Simulations (MPS), told the conference that modern simulation resources are not being exploited to maximum advantage in the pilot training process. This, he says, is primarily because of unimaginative regulatory limitations on the training credits that could justifiably be gained by using them. He believes agencies like EASA and national aviation authorities need to carry out a root-and-branch review of the extensive capabilities of the latest fixed-base FNPT IIs and what they can do for pilots, because they have the potential to make the total training process more efficient and effective. The insistence on much of the training being carried out in full-motion full flight simulators that can cost five to ten times the price of a good FNPT II is unreasonable and unrealistic, he says. Ryanair’s O’Shea agrees with him, and his airline operates several MPS-supplied advanced FNPT IIs for additional training consolidation and testing, which he says has proved highly beneficial in raising standards.

Lufthansa’s Capt Stefan-Stilo Schmidt addressed the issue of ‘Finding the Right Stuff’ at a time when the need to attract far more young people into the profession will be necessary. First, he said, a pilot career needs to be more attractive and more accessible if the required numbers are to be found. That means attracting far more women and also quality candidates of either sex from low-income family backgrounds who would be intimidated by the cost of training.

There is, said Schmidt, a need for pilot career paths to be visible, and include the option for flexible working, especially if the distinctly under-exploited female pilot resource is to be effectively tapped, which he insisted it must be.

Search for the new generation

easyJet is making a concentrated effort to attract more female aircrew. (easyJet) 

In the next 20 years, Schmidt warned, Europe’s commercial air transport industry has to attract and retain 146,000 new pilots and, according to present statistics, that means the airlines will have to attract one million applications from which to select enough individuals who are the ‘Right Stuff’. To get that many young people to apply, according to Schmidt, the crucial factors are ‘career attractiveness and realistic financing for training’.

Meanwhile Ryanair’s O’Shea returned to the IFCTC this year with a solution to the inadequate quality of too many CPL/IR+MCC/JOC graduates. In his job as chair of the ATPG he worked with the training industry, EASA and the airlines to identify what was missing in those who had a licence but were not good enough, either at selection, or who got selected but then failed the airline type rating course.

The answer is the Airline Pilot Standard MCC (APS MCC). O’Shea describes it as an enhanced MCC/JOC which takes in EASA’s KSA philosophy, and consolidates knowledge, skills and understanding through scenario-based instruction. It adds about 20hr to the training pilots get but, says O’Shea, a successful APS graduate is more or less guaranteed to pass Ryanair’s 737 type rating and become a quality line pilot.

Capt Anna Kjaer Thorsøe, operations manager at Denmark’s Center Air Pilot Academy – famous for having produced the world’s first MPL graduates ten years ago – defined the choices airlines face when they opt for MPL or for CPL/IR plus APS MCC: ‘Both produce professional pilots. MPL produces airline pilots and requires high involvement from airlines, but there is no de-learning on joining the airline. APS MCC is less cumbersome for airlines to step on board. It also involves a reduced pilot assessment workload for the airlines, and more real time flight hours in a live IFR environment.’ Because of the lesser airline involvement, there may be some de-learning/re-learning of SOPs.

O’Shea says that there is still a long way to go. Since the IFCTC the ATPG has met the European Commission, presenting it with a long list of proposals that need to be met if the EU is serious about having an efficient future airline industry that can continue to meet demand. Just one of the proposals is the need to update, simplify and streamline FCL regulation.

David Learmount
19 October 2018