Chris Long visited Emirates, the largest airline in the Middle East, to investigate its training expertise.

Captain Martin Mahoney, SVP Flight Training at Emirates, is very well aware that the ideal model for training pilots is constantly changing as it embraces new technology and, importantly, new understanding of human performance. Emirates operates the largest global fleet of Airbus A380s and Boeing 777s, and continues to build those numbers as it accepts one of each type per month during 2014.

Whilst there will also be a gradual phasing out of the existing Airbus A330 and A340 fleet, the overall aircraft numbers will continue to increase, and consequently there will be a parallel growth in crew numbers, which currently stand at 3,700 pilots and 18,000 cabin crew. The task continues to expand to match that demand for initial and recurrent training.

For over four years Emirates has been driving hard to further improve output standards in every training and checking session; the crews either reach those new standards or leave the airline. However at the heart of the programme is the increased training time made available to those crews in order to boost performance. Here the Emirates approach is characterised by the buy in of the senior management, including the president of Emirates, to the principle of investing resources to support the carefully targeted supplementary training.

Form and Focus

Historically the start point for training has been to apply the regulatory programmes which defined the legal imperatives for operating. The regulations were largely driven by long-term experience of aircraft operation, at a time when the rate of innovation was much slower than today. Changes were often a result of lessons learnt from accidents and incidents, and the process of modifying training patterns was very lengthy.

It is matter of record that only one in ten of “routine” flights go as initially programmed into the flight management system, the rest requiring active intervention by the pilots to achieve an effective conclusion to the flight. Where training has now changed most dramatically is that the new focus is not simply on letting the accident/incident analysis drive the training needs, but rather to use the mass of data from all flights, including the overwhelming number of successful flights, to identify best practice and behaviour during routine and abnormal operations.

Alongside this, human performance has been studied in great detail, and this, together with ongoing research, can help to refine both selection of appropriate personal characteristics desirable for operating crews, and adaptive training designed to enhance such characteristics and skills.


An area which has for some years been a focus of attention, both within the industry and, significantly, beyond the profession, is the seamless integration of automation with the skill sets of the flight crew. For many years the drive was frequently to impose automation over the more basic piloting skills, rather than integrate it within the range of competencies of the crews. It is here that Mahoney places particular emphasis. The FAA formed a Flight Deck Automation Working Group (FDAWG) to study this specific issue, and he believes the “presence of an Emirates representative on the Group meant that we were able to influence industry policy on this important topic. The vast majority of all the recommendations issued by the FDAWG have already been implemented at Emirates.”

Mahoney’s comment is in response to an article in Flight International, which highlighted some of the concerns about the balance of baseline pilot handling skills and the increased use of automation. He points out several features on the present pilot training pattern employed at Emirates, which works its way through revisions of aerodynamic theory, through recovery from the approach to stall, both at low and high altitudes, overspeed situations and intervention training, both for First Officers and Captains. Many of these factors are introduced through an extended range of CAE-prepared training scenarios to enhance the “startle” factor. These are introduced throughout the training, including the two manual handling simulator sessions per year which are in addition to standard regulatory recurrent training. Such sessions are flown without the aid of the Autopilot, Flight Directors or Auto Throttle. In practice, then, Emirates pilots can expect a training session in the simulator on average every three months.


This new training philosophy is implemented through the Alternative Training Qualification Programme (ATQP), in which the content is largely defined by Evidence Based Training (EBT).

This latter assembles data from real flight operations in the wide-ranging route network of Emirates as well as from the IATA database, and is able to focus on the skills deemed essential for this particular airline.

ATQP, a programme conceived in close cooperation with the regulatory authority, addresses all of those skills over a three year cycle, the first one of which was completed in January 2014. This will run into the eventual adoption of the IATA Training Qualification Initiative (ITQI), a programme with which Emirates has been involved with IATA over the last three years. Because the start point is EBT, which uses continuing update of data from operating flights, the pattern has at its core a process of continuing evolution. The ultimate aim is to “move away from the base line manufacturers’ conversion courses: we will retain those aspects of these courses which remain relevant, add content to the courses, and realign existing content to reflect our data and evidence amassed over many, many Emirates pilot conversion courses. By so doing we all create conversion courses which better reflects the need of our new pilots when they join us.”

Ab Initio

Emirates presently has an ab initio pilot training programme which recruits cadets from the UAE population, and numbers about 60 pilots a year. At the moment they attend courses at Flight Training Europe and at Oxford Aviation Academy, but from late 2015/early 2016 their successors will be trained at the new Emirates Training Academy, which will be established at the new airport - Dubai World Central. Graduates of the ab initio programme have generally moved to the wide-body fleets, but some of the recent graduates have gone to the regional carrier - flydubai, to build time on the Boeing 737NG fleet.

“The rapid accumulation of sectors which such an airline offers is an excellent operational environment for the cadets to build experience before converting to the Emirates fleets of wide-body aircraft. An objective assessment of this two year programme will take place this year when the first of these cadets transition from flydubai to our B777 fleet. Not only do the young pilots love the level of activity and hands-on flying which flydubai offers, but intuitively we believe their experience will stand them in very good stead flying our wide-body aircraft into six continents to some challenging destinations often in inclement weather”


Mahoney is cautious about the effectiveness of the ICAO Aviation English Level 4 qualification. Experience has shown that all too frequently those holding that certificate simply do not have the language skills necessary to operate to the Emirates standard. Consequently all new joiners have a course on R/T to bring them to the required level. One encouraging point for those who would like to join is that it has been found that those pilots who have spent time with the European low cost carriers have mastered both the fundamental handling skills and spatial awareness as a result of their exposure to multi-sector days. This has proven to be an excellent starting point for the Emirates training.

Cabin Crew

Innovation in training is not confined to the flight deck crew. Kellie White, Safety & Emergency Procedures Training Manager at Emirates, is keen to emphasise the robust nature of the safety training. Using a comprehensive range of high end training devices, largely sourced from TFC Simulation und Technik in Germany, the training is as realistic as she can make it. The emergency evacuation trainers provide a rich sensory environment to simulate as closely as possible a wide range of scenarios. Motion, sound, visual and startle inputs characterise training in turbulence/explosive decompression/emergency landings/ditching/onboard fires and smoke-filled cabins.

Equally important is the understanding of other cultures, so the cabin crew are introduced to behaviours which may be alien to their home culture. The authority which must be shown by cabin crew during an emergency situation may not come naturally to some, but, with appropriate explanations of likely passenger and crew behaviours in challenging situations, training can help crews acquire the essential skills. A great deal of attention is given to building communication skills, so many of the training scenarios include both flight deck and cabin crew in robust CRM exercises - the understanding of each others' tasks results in much improved interactions between the elements of the entire aircraft crew.

One feature of the training is encouraging the crews to come up with original solutions to problems during the training - open discussion between the crews and the trainers is an important element that is embedded in the training approach. For instance, the use of the checklist is an important primary tool, but in some time-critical situations it may be that an action has to be adapted to an unforeseen event - and training for that kind of resilience is also a key feature.

The constant search for even more effective training often leads to the adoption of new and emerging technology - the idea of an avatar to lead some of the distance learning is intriguing. Such a solution could enhance standardisation and be particularly attractive to the new generation entrants, so the search is on to find and assess such an alternative. Much of this thinking is a result of encouraging input from current and new crews - the pool of experience is constantly evolving, and many of the innovations can be drawn out of this wider knowledge base.

Cultural Diversity

The global nature of international flight operations means that many airlines now draw on a wide range of nationalities to provide both flight and cabin crews. Emirates is, by its very nature, a multi-national team, with over 140 different countries represented. Guiding them to a common operating culture is a delicate task, but an interesting observation by Dr. Nicklas Dahlstrom, Human Factors Manager, suggests that this very diversity is a strength. Because there is no dominant national culture across the airline, it has developed its own strong corporate culture in which such diversity is a given. Consequently everyone needs to understand and adapt to this core culture, and the selection processes have adaptability as a fundamental part of the makeup of candidates. Thereafter the training teams, themselves multi-cultural, serve as role models for the new arrivals as they find their feet in the new environment.

Does it Work?

Careful selection of new crews takes into account the major change of lifestyle which is required for pilots and their families. Specified experience and operating levels are expected to guarantee a baseline for piloting skills, but the three and a half days of familiarisation for prospective pilots and their families in Dubai before signing on are a critical part of the recruiting process, and it also allows Emirates to get a really good idea of the full personality of the individual. The very low training failure rate indicates that this whole process works well.

Once the training starts, the emphasis is to introduce resilience; “the aim is to give our pilots the knowledge and confidence to buy themselves time whilst they fly the aircraft, assimilate the data, make a decision and land the aircraft. We have been held up as a leading example of EBT by the ITQI Steering Group. In fact, the ITQI Steering Group has stated publicly that Emirates support of the EBT programme was pivotal to its success. We have presented our ATQP/EBT programme to audiences including The Royal Aeronautical Society, the Asia Pacific Airline Training Symposium and recently to TRAFI - the Finnish Regulatory Authority.”

Mahoney is not complacent - far from it, and believes that much remains to be done to continue to be one of the leaders in the industry, and looks forward to the challenges that training will have to overcome in the future. One area to be explored is the goal of analysing current performance and behaviours in order to put in place predictive training, ideally adapted to individuals.

As to the effectiveness of the present pattern, the last word rests with an Emirates captain, who reinforces the usefulness of the training that he had received during his manual (flying) training simulator sessions:

This morning, returning to Dubai in inclement weather, we experienced an auto flight degradation. Manually flying the aircraft in such environmental conditions was challenging - if there was ever justification for the manual handling training sessions, I can’t thank you enough”

That says it all.