Willem-Jan Derks explores the challenges faced by Copa Airlines over the last several years and the solutions found by its Training Department to address the rapid growth of the company.

The general rapid expansion of commercial aviation in Latin America has seen a few companies experience particularly remarkable growth. Copa Airlines from Panama is one of those, having doubled their size in five years.

At present, Copa Airlines and Copa Airlines Colombia operate 60 Boeing 737 aircraft plus 23 Embraer 190s with another 43 Boeing 737’s on order. This is rather impressive given that the airline originated in a country with a little over 3.5 million people. Panama’s strategic location in the continent has allowed Copa Airlines to build its ‘Hub of the Americas’ at Tocumen International Airport, transporting over 10 million passengers every year to 66 locations in 29 countries in the Americas, a number that is expected to grow significantly over the next few years. Expansions such as these obviously provide challenging tasks for the recruitment and training departments.

Training Programme Since 2006, Copa Airlines has had a state-of-the-art training centre in Panama City equipped with three flat panel trainers (VPT), two FFS Level D simulators and one FTD Level 5 with motion cue system for their Boeing 737 and Embraer 190 fleet. This year, the centre plans to expand by incorporating another FFS, as well as two cockpit procedure trainers for the B737 fleet. “All this is planned to fulfill the airline’s training need for both Panama and Colombia at our own centre,” explained Capt. Pedro Herrera, Senior Training Manager. Agreements with other centres are in place for extra capacity if needed.

The hundreds of new pilots that were trained over the last few years follow a very organized footprint that completes the initial training programme in just less than four months, including the Initial Operational Experience. After a month of ground school, provided with a mix of e-learning (40%) and traditional classroom teaching, the trainees have 24 hours on the virtual procedure trainer over a week, before completing between 40 and 52 hours on the FFS depending on the trainee’s previous experience. The programme is completed with line training of between 100 and 150 hours.

Copa Airlines started incorporating e-learning into their training curriculum in 1999, expanding the use of this methodology gradually over the years until its current format which provides good results. A few years’ later virtual procedure trainers were incorporated, further developing the programme. The latest innovation came only recently after a close cooperation with the Civil Aviation Authorities of Panama. With the selection of the Level 5 FTD with motion cue system for the Boeing 737, Copa Airlines sought to obtain credit for hours in these simulators in order to reduce the hours that were necessary in the FFS. Exploring the capacities of the device to define the maximum credit, currently the devices allow for credit for 50% of initial training, 50% of the recurrents (except for PIC), as well as CAT II/III and RNAV/RNP training, optimizing training processes and reducing the load on the full flight simulators.

The progress through the programme was adjusted after the implementation of these new devices and the credit obtained for their use. Copa Airlines applied a methodology that allows it to take full advantage of the consolidation of knowledge and experience obtained throughout the training. Special training courses such as Low Visibility Operations (CAT II/III), RNAV/RNP SAAAR and Cold Weather Operations are first seen in ground school to cover all theory aspects related to the operation before passing onto the VPT to start working to associated checklists for both normal and abnormal operations as well as specific conditions. Upon successful completion of this phase, the students pass onto the FFS where more real-life scenarios are presented and the lessons learned in the previous two phases are consolidated before passing to the line flying experience.

The Training Department will continue its development this year with full implementation of Evidence Based Training concepts into its curriculum. Another important addition to the programme planned for this year is the incorporation of two cockpit procedure trainers for the B737 fleet. Other than the exclusively touch screen VPT’s used by Copa Airlines, these devices include the actual cockpit hardware to enhance the realism of the procedures that will be taught and increase the effectiveness of training in this stage of the programme.

Copa Airlines Columbia In 2005, Copa Airlines acquired Colombian airline AeroRepublica, which in 2010 changed its name to Copa Airlines Colombia completing the incorporation of the airline into the Copa Airlines holding. The airline’s main focus is the Colombian domestic market, which means there are some operational differences with the mostly international operation of Copa Airlines out of Panama.

Operating under a different legislation than its Panamanian parent company requires some adjustments of the standardized training programmes. The airline has its own Training Department with courses that are approved by the Colombian Civil Aviation Authority. It does however, use the facilities and simulators at the Copa Airlines Training Centre in Panama, as well as instructors and check airmen of Copa Airlines that have Colombian licenses besides their Panamanian.

There are slight differences in the training programme, allowing for the more domestic type of operation of Copa Airlines Colombia with shorter flights, smaller airports and higher turn-around rates, as well as regulations differences.

Hiring qualified staff is even more challenging in Colombia since local legislation is very restrictive in terms of allowing Colombian companies to hire foreign pilots, resulting in a higher demand for pilots with Colombian nationality. Obviously there is competition to hire these pilots from other airlines in the country, including two of the other Latin American giants Avianca (based in Colombia) and LATAM Airlines through their subsidiary LAN Colombia.

Hiring and Integration The difficulties in finding sufficient and adequate personnel is a common problem for many airlines in the region, but even more so for a large airline based in a country with only 3.5 million inhabitants. With Copa Airlines’ rapid growth, the airline had to look outside its borders to provide sufficient crew for both flight deck and cabin. Like many countries, Panama had limitations on the number of ex-pats that could be employed by any Panamanian company. The airline once more worked closely with the authorities to solve this problem for one of the fastest growing companies in the country. At present, to hire foreign employees the company must demonstrate the need to hire them due to a lack of suitable local candidates.

Approximately 50% of pilots in Panama are ex-pats from all over the world, leading to another challenge for the Training Department, integrating everyone into a single Copa Airlines culture and operating philosophy. Even though a large amount of the ex-pats are all from Spanish speaking countries, cultural differences within the region can be substantial and have to be considered. CRM is a vital tool for successful integration, and it is used on various levels.

The flight crew CRM programme for example, includes important multi-cultural aspects affecting the flight deck, specifically emphasizing matters such as how things are interpreted by different cultures, how to manage various types of behaviours and attitudes, and how to react to various and changing circumstances.

The cabin crew programme includes CRM factors that affect communication to the flight deck, since many cabin crew members are from the region, but in the flight deck pilots are from all over the world. Also, instructor training takes these factors into consideration, and special attention is dedicated to cultural differences, ways of learning and reactions in the classroom that vary from one area to another.

Instructors are an important factor in Copa Airlines’ training footprint, and finding qualified new instructors is a challenge for any operator worldwide, even more so in a growth scenario. In the past, instructors with vast experience could easily be found to be hired by the airlines, but current hiring rates and training demands have changed that. Copa Airlines runs its instructors through a thorough ‘teach the teacher’ programme to prepare them for the job and maintain the quality of instructors and therefore the training programme itself in spite of the differences in instructor profile.

Latin American Superior Academy for Aviation In June 2013, Copa Airlines took another big step in the development of training the next generations of local pilots when it sponsored the Academia Latinoamericana de Aviación Superior (ALAS, meaning wings in Spanish). All applicants to the school must be Panamanians, or COPA employees with Panamanian residency. Students that successfully complete their training at ALAS have a slot reserved in Copa Airlines’ training programmes, but do not receive a job guarantee until they pass their training satisfactorily.

ALAS is a co-operation with the University of Technology of Panama (UTP) and US-based Florida Institute of Technology (FIT). Besides promoting the pilot career amongst Panamanian youth, one of the main objectives for the creation of ALAS was to control the quality of training. The level of education chosen for the school is one equivalent to a university level. All the training is delivered at Marcos A. Gelabert International Airport (Albrook), a former US Army base outside Panama City, using FIT instructors for both theory and flight.

The first batch of 40 students was selected out of 100 applicants and they started their course in two groups of 20 students. The number of students was limited to 40 because of the classroom capacity the school presently has, explained Robert Katz, General Director of ALAS. The school plans to increase the number of student per year as its facility grows, and offering training to pupils from other countries is also amongst the future possibilities.

Finding suitable candidates is ever more challenging however, mainly because of the general level of English of the applicants. This is a common issue in the region and a problem to be addressed in local primary and high schools. The English level is a requirement ALAS cannot waive (nor does it want to) since the entire programme is delivered in English to the students.

The course at ALAS is delivered and audited by FIT before continuing onto the Jet Transition training delivered by Copa Airlines at their Training Centre in a specifically designed programme. The school is equipped with a fleet of Cessna 172 and Piper PA34 Seneca aircraft, as well as a Frasca TruFlite Level 1 device that can be configured for either of the two models and an Ascent XJ trainer that uses a combination of systems for the Boeing 737 and Embraer 190.