Tragedy can provide a turning point. For Air France, the June 2009 crash of AF447 prompted self-examination, followed by determination. Rick Adams visited the airline’s Paris training centre to learn about their new philosophy and direction.

Nearly six years on, the lessons of AF447 are still being learned. The Atlantic accident stunned not only Air France but Airbus and the entire aviation industry as well. It raised perplexing and in some cases still not fully resolved questions about aircraft stall characteristics, over-ocean flightpaths, over-reliance on automation, pilot fatigue, and crew training.

Industry-wide, the findings from the investigation accelerated intense debate, expert working groups, and regulatory changes on flight data recorder recoverability, flight time and duty limitations, upset prevention and recovery techniques and training, as well as other issues. Closer to the epicentre of the tragedy, the fate of the Airbus A330 led to transformational changes at the Air France training centre near Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, AF447’s intended destination.

“After AF447, we believed we had to change many things,” said Jérôme Breuzet, Air France head of training and an A340 Captain who is transitioning to the A330. “AF447 was a terrible accident, and at the first beginning we didn’t understand how it could happen. So we looked at other airlines, how they did training.”

“Before AF447 we were quite self-confident regarding training,” Breuzet explained. “We were not really involved in the international committees. After this accident we did a lot of benchmarks. Before AF447 we had many ideas of projects but we didn’t have the ability to develop them (due to regulatory constraints). This event made us change a lot of things in the last four years, and we were changing everything for the pilots.”

The overhaul of Air France’s pilot training coalesced around the Alternative Training Qualification Programme (ATQP), a voluntary approach to recurrent training adopted by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in 2006, currently encapsulated in the AMC1 ORO.FC.A.245 regulation subpart on air operations published in April 2012. ATQP is also referred to by EU-OPS 1.978.

Non-Prescriptive Trend

ATQP is an airline self-managed “beyond the basics” alternative to the traditional, prescribed heavy regulatory oversight “one size fits all” approach which has characterized pilot training for decades and which is still the norm in parts of the world. It parallels the Advanced Qualification Program (AQP), which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began enabling for airlines in the United States in the early 1990s and is now applied by a large majority of American Part 121 and many Part 135 operators. AQP has also gained some traction in Canada, Latin America, and Japan.

Available as an option for recurrent training only in Europe, airlines which have implemented ATQP include British Airways, easyJet, flybe, Swiss International, Thomas Cook, Thomson Airways, and Virgin Atlantic. Lufthansa, their subsidiary Germanwings, Alitalia, Air France’s Transavia, and other EU carriers are also pursuing their versions of the ATQP scheme.

British Airways ATQP flight manager Keith Dyce lists “less unrealistic testing, more relevant training,” training proficiency and safety improvement, and “saving money from fewer line checks” as benefits to airlines.

Led by flight training senior vice-president Mark Mahoney, formerly of Thomas Cook, Emirates instituted a Gulf Civil Aviation Authority-approved ATQP programme in 2011 which is recognized as one of the industry’s touchstones (see Chris Long’s feature, Emirates Training – A 21st Century Model?, in issue 3/2014 of CAT magazine.)

In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) “intends to encourage operators to develop ATQP programs utilising EBT [evidence-based training] as the core element (in place of prescriptive regulatory approaches to training and checking),” according to a draft advisory publication, CAAP 217-1(0), issued last October.

Freedom with Responsibility

Air France’s Breuzet said one key difference between the previous prescriptive training regimen and their new ATQP is that “you are able to define your own programme to meet your own needs.” However, with that relative freedom comes a significant shift in responsibility. “Before ATQP the operator was not really responsible for the content. If you had an accident, you just had to prove that you were approved and that your simulator sessions were approved. If they were corresponding to regulation, you didn’t have any problems.”

“Now with ATQP, you are responsible. If you have an accident you have to explain why you have decided to add certain exercises, why you withdrew some training exercises, why you didn’t train on a risk that could be analysed before the accident. So it’s a major change for the responsibility of the training programme.”

The other radical re-vector is that ATQP is a competency-based training (CBT) and evidence-based training (EBT) approach. “Competency-based training is really different,” Breuzet commented, “because you now have more non-technical skills than technical skills evaluated. That means you may say to a captain, ‘Poor leadership, poor communication,’ and that’s not easy to hear. The pilot has to understand what the problem is to work on it, and it can take many months before you see improvement in his attitude.”

Air France pilot training now integrates the core competencies defined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), such as situation awareness, problem-solving, teamwork, and so forth, into the instructor’s evaluations of pilots during both simulator sessions and operational line flying checks. “This was something we didn’t really do before. Crew performance was not evaluated regarding soft skills,” said Breuzet.

Pilots and instructors initially had some difficulty grasping the change. Some viewed it as “a new idea coming from the States” and thought not much would change. “After a few months, seeing their grading sheets, they noticed it was not really the same.”

“It takes time to change the ways of an instructor or doing checking. It changes the way of looking at the crew. For some of them, they come to an understanding in two weeks. For others it may take two or three years to feel at ease with this concept.”

Data-Driven Change

It took Air France more than two years to lay the foundation for their ATQP programme, beginning in 2010, and they drew on the considerable experience of British Airways and Emirates, as well as Swiss.

Representatives of the French civil aviation authority, Direction Générale de l'Aviation Civile (DGAC), were also part of the working group from the beginning of the process. “You have to work from the first day with your authorities,” Breuzet emphasised. “It was completely new. They didn’t know anything about ATQP, we didn’t know anything, and we learned together. If you are working alone and after two years you go to your authority and give them the paperwork and say, ‘I need your approval,’ they can’t approve anything because they don’t understand what you are talking about.”

The Air France ATQP working group analysed available data, including information from an IATA (International Air Transport Association) Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) designed to minimise threat and error management risks.

“You have to define a process, collecting many, many data. Flight data monitoring. Quality department. Training department grading sheets. Pilot feedback from the line. You collect all this data, and you must be very efficient if you want to define your training programme based on your own needs,” Breuzet said. And despite considerable data to be sifted through, there were also gaps in their knowledge. For example: “We had no data coming from the training sessions. We didn’t know what was happening in the simulator. We had the failure rate at the end of the session but that’s all we had.”

“So we understood we needed to collect more data coming from the training session. We had to work on the safety management system (SMS) issues and work on the syllabus.”

The most noticeable syllabus adjustment is in the four-a-year simulator sessions (two every six months). Instead of a sim checking session each six months, there is now only one such check a year. The other three sim sessions are now focused on training. “Instructors are very happy to do more training and less checking.”

And, as part of the competency-based training approach, an instructor can require a pilot to go through another, remedial sim session to work on significant weaknesses detected during a non-checking simulator scenario (including soft skills). It’s kind of like a check, in that a pilot can be “failed,” but it’s not technically a check. The remedial session won’t necessarily be a repeat of the unsatisfactory scenario; instructors are asked to look for the root cause of the weakness, and may use a different exercise to help draw it out.

“It was difficult for an instructor, in the previous training approach, to be ‘free.’ If, at the end of a session, the instructor would never fly with the student, he can’t let him go [back to operational flying]. They should only go back when the instructor is confident,” Breuzet said. “We had to change also this point of view, but I think the instructors prefer this situation. From the pilot perspective it is something different that they come for training and they may fail.”

Air France synthetic flight instructors have a menu of scenarios to choose from. Even if a pilot knows the list, “for every crew the scenario is different; you don’t know what the instructor is going to choose.” Pilots also don’t know in advance what effect the first situation will have on the second situation the instructor selects for the two and a half hour session. “You can’t really prepare for it.”

In a fundamental renversement in philosophy, Air France also threw out its customised manuel d’utilisation de l’avion, replacing it with the aircraft manufacturers’ respective flight crew operating manuals (FCOM). Like many legacy carriers, the airline’s documentation dated to the era when OEMs provided little guidance. Operating a mixed fleet, Air France sought to make procedures “as common as possible.” In theory, a pilot could fly older generation Boeing 747-200s for a period of time, then switch to flying new-gen Airbus A320s with relatively little deviation.

Breuzet noted it can take considerable staff to produce your own airline-specific documentation. “Today we are flying with the FCOM produced by the manufacturer.” When Air France made that change, “pilots had to learn new procedures, flying the same aircraft but differently. ‘I’ve been flying A320s for eight years and you tell me I have to do it differently tomorrow?’”

The Evolution Continues

The Air France ATQP programme was implemented for A320 pilots in 2013, followed by pilots of long-haul aircraft (A330, A340, A380, B747, B777) the past year. So it’s a little early to gauge the long-term results of the changeover.

Breuzet said they have noticed improvement in the leadership competency for First Officers, but it’s difficult to ascribe the improvement solely to ATQP. Two years ago Air France also changed from a pilot non-flying (PNF) to a pilot monitoring (PM) concept during operations, getting the non-flying pilot more involved in flight management.

Every three months, a special committee of about 15 people, including representatives from flight training, safety, quality, and the DGAC, reviews current data and determines whether to make further changes in the Air France program.

“Many, many things have changed, and some pilots have asked, ‘When do we stop changing?’ We tell them we can’t stop changing,” Breuzet said. “It’s true that it’s easier not to change anything. But if you want to improve your safety level, you don’t have any other opportunity than ATQP for recurrent training.”