Chris Long takes a look at some of the smaller European FTOs, and their adaptability to today’s aviation industry.
The ICAO title “Aviation Training Organisation” (ATO) now reflects a much broader range of training organisations which provide both initial and recurrent training for aviation professionals, embracing as it does the separate entities formerly designated in EASA parlance as FTOs and TRTOs.
For some time now the major forecasts of demand for new entrants into aviation have identified rapidly increasing numbers - and that reality has arrived. The industry needs those new professionals now, so as a result the global training pie has hugely increased in size. The scale of demand has meant that not only have the long-established major players upped their game, but that smaller organisations and start-ups have an opportunity to capture useful market share. The nature of the training has evolved, as have the approaches adopted by some of the more modest organisations to respond to the changing relationships between the training teams, the airlines and the regulators.
By the same token there are also opportunities for new manufacturers to enter the market - in particular with the lower end (low cost) training devices, where there is room for innovation and rapid reaction to the new and emerging technologies.
Baltic Aviation Academy
A good example of entry into the training world is the Baltic Aviation Academy (BAA). Based at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the capital city of Vilnius, Lithuania (country population three million), BAA is part of the Avia Solutions Group (ASG). This organisation had a turnover of US$400 million in 2013, and has just won a contract to build the new airport close to Moscow. ASG is a major supplier of virtually all support services at Vilnius and other regional airports.
BAA is the primary training arm of the group, and as such it identified and responded to the strengths brought about by its geographical position as a link between the European Union, of which Lithuania is a member, and the CIS countries, whose language and culture it is very familiar with.
Initially set up to provide ab initio training to pilots from Lithuania and the CIS countries, this energetic company has had to look further in both the range of training packages and geographically in order to build a sustainable customer base as the challenges of the Russian economy and relationships have impacted the initial market. Trainees now come from a very wide global base, including not just many European countries, but also those of central and eastern Asia and South America, as well as both the Gulf and Africa.
Customers are not confined to self-funding students, but include many airlines. The modern fleet of Tecnam 2002s and a Tecnam 2006 are supported by a Mechtronix FNPT 2, an FTD manufactured by SoftekSim, a company also based in the Baltic at Riga, Latvia, and ground school theory using the Bristol Groundschool material.
Head of Training, Indre Sveistryte, now has a full set of tools to deliver not only the CPL/IR Integrated and Modular courses, but everything is also ready for a MPL course, an option which may well be taken up very soon.
Eglė Vaitkeviiūtė, CEO, is driven to place the people part of the business right at the centre of the activity, both for her team and for the entire customer base. She is proud of the fact that it is here where the advantage of having a young (average 28 years) and flexible team comes into play.
Another critical underlying theme is that, rather than creating a monolithic and expensive structure, BAA aims to create partnerships where possible with regulators, airlines and other training organisations. For instance, one of the most successful approaches has been to identify spare capacity at the training facilities of airlines or other ATOs, and to place customers in that spare capacity. In that way an individual or airline can, for instance, request a Type Rating from BAA, who, if their own A320 or B737 FFSs are full, can contact and book space within that partner pool. The reverse is true also, if one of the partners needs additional training, BAA can either carry out that training itself or find a partner who has the right sort of spare capacity available at the requested time. Through close cooperation with the Lithuanian Civil Aviation Administration, BAA now has EASA approval, and so presently offers EASA-approved training on 18 types of aircraft.
That partnering idea runs throughout the business, and because the majority of the large pool of instructors are current airline pilots, they can be pulled in when necessary in a part-time capacity to complete the training, so resources are closely matched to the training task.
BAA has also moved to provide support where there have been gaps in training provided by airlines or airports. Whilst some services may not have the high visibility of cabin or flight crew training, there is still a demand for appropriate training for the multitude of tasks around an airport. That can range from all ramp operations, to loading and performance qualifications, through to specific aviation English language training for these specialised tasks.
A more conventional partnership is in place with nearby Kazimieras Simonavicius University, which takes the student through a degree in Aviation Management, which of course, will provide an additional career-enhancing qualification. In-house developed software, called MOMook is the single over-reaching business management tool, which is not only a Learning Management System, but also envelops all the business finances, marketing, sales etc. This has proven to be so successful that its potential as a separate product has led to a company being set up to exploit its capabilities - another example of the identification and realisation of further opportunity.
By focussing on the detail, and making the whole process as simple as possible by providing accommodation, transportation and leisure time services, BAA has built a sound reputation in which the low cost base has a significant impact. The success that this has brought to the self-sponsored element has now positioned BAA so that major airlines have become involved in the process, and, given the broad product and customer base, the future is looking good. BAA has certainly proved the value of diversity and partnership.
A Combined Approach
There are those in the industry who characterise the different philosophies of ab initio pilot training from each side of the Atlantic. EASA trains intensively to have the knowledge/capability/confidence to operate as a professional pilot as soon as the licence is issued. The FAA provides absolute basics in order to build hours to become competent. While the end product of both is a competent pilot, the route to that level is different in each case.
The bottom line at the moment, however, is that under the FAA a low-time pilot is not legally allowed a job as a commercial pilot. On the other hand, by following a different training pattern, those holding an EASA licence can do just that. In some eyes the no-brainer solution is to blend the best of both of those worlds, by carrying out a significant part of the training in the USA, but leading to both an FAA and EASA licence.
One person who had the vision to see this is Marc Kegelaers of Ben-Air Flight Academy (BAFA), based at Antwerp, Belgium. When the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) were looking for quality European-based partners for such a dual programme, Kegelaers was delighted that BAFA was selected. The years building the business up by focussing on quality has really paid off; students are now fully engaged in this programme and will graduate with both an FAA licence and an EASA one. This combination is proving very attractive to a major European airline.
This partnership is one of several that BAFA is involved with, and others are also underway. Reaching out to airlines is very important, as ATOs now realise that they have to better understand exactly what an airline requires of its new hires - and frequently merely holding a licence is not enough. Kegelaers laments the industry-wide lack of feedback from the airlines as to why so many recently-qualified licence holders do not succeed at the airline interviews and selection.
The recent EATS 2014 keynote speech by Captain Andy O’Shea, Head of Training at Ryanair pointed out that his airline only accepts 49% of the candidates holding EASA licences who apply for a job. Until the problem is understood it is very difficult to fix it.
At BAFA a win-win process has been put in motion, whereby a student pilot is expected to complete a significant piece of work similar in philosophy to the thesis of a university education.
The scenario is that a pupil is assigned a route from Brussels (the nearest major international airport to the training centre) to a primary European destination, operating a narrow-body jet such as a B737NG or an Airbus A320. The student then has to plan every detail. This means not just the cockpit-driven details of flight plan and drills, but all the peripheral activities, such as the tasks of a dispatcher, Air Traffic Controller, Ramp chief etc. Here it becomes abundantly clear to the student where the role of the pilot is situated in a very complex game plan - not only does he/she have to understand the pilot training to complete that part, but the reason for and consequences of, the pilot’s actions become evident.
That thesis then has to be presented to a board of experienced pilots - not just instructors from the school, but also to current airline pilots. This gives the airline a chance to see students-in-training and to form an idea of what is coming down the pipeline. It also gives them the opportunity to shape some of the training and focus of the courses, in particular the non-regulatory part. For instance, a view of the motivation and awareness of the students becomes clear during this process, and it is entirely possible that a student can make an impression that will lead to employment once the licence is issued.
Gone are the days of FTOs working by focussing solely on the immediate licencing minimums and processes. As the professional tasks have become more complex, so the range of skills to answer those challenges has grown beyond the scope of most individual players. Instead, there is a growing and common tendency to reach out to partners and share those skills to produce a balanced and thorough professional training. In particular the smaller organisations are responding more rapidly in trying to adapt and deliver more for less. The blending of talents and training has to result in a much more rounded and better preparation for real life professional flying - giving the young pilot a much needed boost at the start of what is an increasingly complex career.