Good News on the Pilot Front

By Kathryn B. Creedy

  • Robust commercial pilot enrollments at universities
  • Time between graduation and airline hiring reduced from two years to 37 days
  • CFIs desperately needed
  • Pilot age rising to between 47 and 50
  • Pilot quality and shortage issues remain unresolved

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Cargo carriers are gaining interest from University of North Dakota students who said they would likely choose cargo operations as a career move, University of North Dakota Director Aviation Industry Relations Kent Lovelace told attendees at the Regional Air Cargo Carriers (RACCA) conference. But the industry needs to do more to get them in the door. He also noted the time it takes to get a job has shortened to months, not years.

However, it should not be assumed that robust enrollments and accelerating flight hours before graduation has solved the pilot shortage. It has not, according to numerous speakers at the World Airline Training conference in April. In fact, speakers at the conference advocated for overhauling how airline pilot training is done, streamlining the process using advanced learning technologies, getting students out of the classroom and re-designing training programs to better suit how students want to learn. Many speakers offered ways to do that while maintaining high training quality.

Using the results of the university’s latest pilot supply forecast, Lovelace reported students are now more aware of cargo operators as a career option and, more importantly, understand the quality experience cargo operations offer.

“We asked how likely they were to choose a regional cargo carrier and 53.8% said they were likely to do so,” said Lovelace, adding there are things cargo operators can do to improve those odds. “We also asked them to describe why they wouldn’t choose cargo carriers. Half the comments related to compensation with salary being a big influencer although quality of life is still big. Other issues include the type of aircraft, missing a social connection and wanting to work with people/passengers. Others said they didn’t want to work alone or fly at night. There is a misperception of how the industry actually operates. We have told them working for a cargo carrier in a single pilot operation at night over the mountains will make them a much better pilot.”

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Lovelace cited concerns there were no defined career pathways at cargo carriers. “They want to know they have a path to the next step,” he said. “They want to know what they need to do to have the quickest route to the major. Cargo carriers need to educate them on what is involved in flying for their airlines.”

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Applications and Certifications Up

“The good news is, according to the FAA, student pilot certifications are up a little, while private pilots and commercial certifications are both up for the second year in a row,” he said. “CFI certifications are up for the third year in a row. The only bad news is the age of the pilot population is also growing to between 46 and 50 for a commercial or ATP license and that is a little troubling.”

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For the Fall 2018, there are 800 new commercial flight major freshman and transfer admits, he reported. “Over a three-year period we have doubled our input of students because of all the opportunities that are now out there,” he said. “Opportunity equals demand. Our typical yield rate from such admissions is 60-70% and that translates to 500 new commercial flight majors.”

Lovelace also reported the reversal of a trend away from pursuing an airline pilot career. “A decade ago, students who wanted to pursue a piloting career was on the downslope,” he said. “Now it is rising. Interest in military careers, however, is way down.”

One of the biggest changes is the time it takes to get a job. “Among UND graduates the time between graduation and applying for the R-ATP is shorter,” he said. “It is down from two years to 37 days. That means they are achieving more flying time while they are in college so by the time they graduate they almost have the time accumulated to be hirable. Our December 2017 graduates had many who had nearly 1,000 hours. The students themselves are accelerating the process.”

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The shortening of the time between graduation and hiring has significant implications for safety as WATS speakers reported the more time between the two milestones, the greater the decline in pilot quality. Studies have found the further away a candidate is from the structured training environment they enjoyed in college or flight school, the more discipline and professionalism they lose. The trend toward hiring so soon after graduation is expected to improve pilot quality.

Training Industry in Desperate Need of CFIs

The university’s CFI class this summer has a record 50 students scheduled. “They are scheduling summer sessions to get flight courses done,” he said adding the same trends are being played out at Auburn and Embry Riddle. “We are up 35%, Auburn is up 30%, Middle Tennessee is up 19% and ERAU is up 20%. For the most part, all the collegiate programs are reporting a noticeable increase in enrollment of students wanting to fly professionally. In addition, the percent of international enrollment is down at our Grand Forks campus as we have shifted more of our contract student training to our facility in Mesa, AZ.”

All schools are reporting CFI staffing issues with top concerns focused on high turnover and the lack of multi-engine instrument (MEI) and initial CFI instructors. At UND the average CFI tenure is 13.9 months. It has only 171 of the 220 CFIs it needs to operate at an optimal levels. Only 17% have an MEI, with the university footing the $6,300 bill for MEI training.

Lovelace reported university resources are being stretched.

“Instructors are leaving when they get close to 1,000 hours,” he said. “High turnover is a problem for the training community. The 18- and 12-month commitment we were asking for in exchange for free MEI, did not have a high acceptance rate. When we changed the commitment to 150 hours of twin instruction the acceptance rate went way up. Students are flying more while they are in school and are working as flight instructors their senior year and some in their junior year. If  they instruct  their senior year they have moved on to the next step in their professional piloting careers within five to six months after they graduate. Because there are so many opportunities we can’t provide enough incentives for them to stay and instruct. The training community needs more CFIs.”

UND has nearly 900 students on the flight schedule with 32% of its CFIs already at 750-1000 hours. Some 69% of MEIs have between 750-1000 hours. If the R-ATP rule were to change to 750, 40% of students would be without an instructor.

He cautioned the industry to be careful with efforts to lower the pilot hourly requirements of R-ATP with institutional authority from 1000 to 750. “We computed that would drop our production by 40% so it could have serious negative impacts for the training community to give you enough pilots down the road,” he said.

Lovelace echoed JetBlue Senior Vice President Warren Christie, who also spoke at the conference, in saying the number one reason for losing a student is cost, with most losses coming in the first to second year. The industry may need to consider financial solutions to mitigate the issue, he said.

 

Game Changer: Flight Safety Foundation Weighs in on Pilot Training

Independent safety experts are being ignored in favor of legislative politics

By Kathryn B. Creedy

In the pilot training and experience debate, little coverage is given to independent safety experts who call for an overhaul in the way we train pilots. In all the political rhetoric, the two sides – Colgan families, a labor union and legislators vs. the regional airline industry – often talk passed each other while independent safety voices are drowned out by politics as the pilot shortage worsens.

The Flight Safety Foundation (FSF), one of the most highly respected aviation safety organizations in the world, issued a Position Paper calling for science-based pilot training solutions versus relying on a minimum number of hours to assess pilot quality.

Disappointingly, but certainly not a surprise, coverage was limited to the issuance of the paper and failed to explore the subject further. In fact, no one has explored what aviation safety experts think is necessary, despite the wide-spread agreement by experts who have no other motivation for their efforts than safety.

FSF conclusions echo a 2015 report by the Office of Inspector General calling for an overhaul in pilot training to address concerns in how crews monitor aircraft in an automated age. It cited the Air Asiana crash in San Francisco, the crash of a UPS cargo jet in 2013 and the Colgan 3407 accident in Buffalo, noting crews were not properly monitoring the condition of the aircraft  and confirming training issues were not just restricted to regionals.

OIG also cited a 2010 Flight Safety Foundation study reporting 80% of the 30 veteran commercial airline pilots it studied flew manually under 10,000 feet but were unable to meet standards using only basic instrumentation if automation failed. Indeed, OIG and FSF recommendations are the same made by a score of speakers at last Fall’s Royal Aeronautical Society’s Maintaining Pilot Recruitment and Training Standards conference.

The question we should be asking legislators and ALPA is why they ignore the mounting evidence and the collective wisdom of what needs to be done from independent experts from around the world. They raise red flags on pilot training methodology that goes far beyond the petty war being waged by legislators on regionals.

Safety arbiters sidelined by politics

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The nation’s two safety arbiters – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – openly admit they have been sidelined by politics in the wake of the Aviation Safety and FAA Reauthorization Act of 2010. This despite the fact during hearings on the bill before it passed, both rejected the idea hours alone are an appropriate metric of a pilot’s skill citing the fact all the pilots involved in regional and most commercial accidents had far more than 1500 hours.

FSF agrees. “It cannot be assumed that critical skills and knowledge will be obtained only through hours in the air,” said FSF President Jon Beatty, in releasing the Position Paper – Pilot Training and Competency. “A data-driven approach to pilot training is an essential element in continuing to improve the industry’s safety performance. Training must target real-world risk and ensure a progressive and satisfactory performance standard.”

Beatty countered assertions made as recently as the February 27th House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee hearing the outstanding safety record was due solely to the 2010 law.

“The results speak for themselves,” ALPA President Tim Canoll testified. “In the 20 years prior to the 2010 rule, 1,100 passengers lost their lives in Part 121 accidents. Since the rule that has been reduced to zero.”

ALPA’s statement is misleading since the 1,100 including 9/11, TWA 800 and other accidents, but ALPA would have you believe they were all, with their myriad of causes, resolved by requiring every pilot to have 1500 hours and the new law. In fact, the 1500-hour rule did not become effective until 2013 with no accidents in the intervening three years. Seems the industry got the job done without it.

But such reality doesn’t stop ALPA. When asked for a comment on the FSF report, ALPA spokesperson Corey Caldwell sent this: “While ALPA appreciates the work that went into the white paper, we are disappointed that the Flight Safety Foundation chose to omit the fact that since Congress passed the Airline Safety and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Extension Act of 2010, there have been zero fatal passenger airline accidents in the United States. In the two decades prior to enactment of the law, which strengthened pilot training and qualification requirements, more than 1,100 people died in U.S. passenger airline accidents. This change in the law and associated rules have moved the United States into an environment where flight training, flight time, and demonstration of competency are well balanced – and has resulted in safer skies.”

On the contrary, FSF, rather than omit the relationship between the law and the safety record, addressed it head on.

“[The industry’s] outstanding safety record is attributed to a variety of factors and the diligent efforts of thousands of aviation professionals around the world…,” said the FSF press release. “It is not the result of any one factor, including any particular change in the hours requirement for pilot experience.” (My emphasis.)

In fact, it put credit for our safety record where it belongs.

Big data important to aviation safety

FSF cited the collection and analysis of safety data and information as key to mitigating risks before they lead to accidents. That risk-based approach clearly is successful and applies just as much to pilot training as any other aspect of aviation safety.

The regional industry has been saying for years the experience garnered by flying banners, reporting traffic and instructing is actually doing more harm than good based on data on how new hires fared in training. This was later confirmed by academic studies showing the quality of some pilots has deteriorated because they lose the professionalism and discipline so important to NTSB. As a result, regionals have increased their training footprint from 10 to 15 sessions.

“Pilot experience, which also is an important safety factor, historically has been associated with the number of flight hours accumulated over a pilot’s career,” FSF said. “What often is overlooked, however, is the quality of flight time and how it is accumulated. Was it in single- or multi-engine aircraft? In visual or instrument conditions? In a structured, professional environment, or in an often less intense, general aviation environment? The type of experience and the flight environment must be considered to provide meaning to the [flight hours] number.”

FSF’s final conclusion is simple: “[FSF] believes the pilot career path we have today will not take us where we need to go tomorrow. It is time to take a data-driven, pragmatic approach. The industry has reached a crossroads in determining how pilots need to be selected, hired, trained and mentored for career growth. Changes need to be made if the industry is to continue its stellar safety performance in an era of expected rapid growth in many regions of the world.”

Being bold

FSF’s Position Paper, the OIG report, the collective wisdom of global experts and concerns raised by the regional airline industry itself, demand we put politics aside and clear a path for the future.

“The industry needs to be courageous and bold to make these changes and not simply rely on the ways of the past,” Beatty concluded. “Through these changes, the industry can continue to serve the needs of the airlines while enhancing safety standards on behalf of the traveling public.”

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