Following the merger with US Airways, American Airlines is now the largest carrier in the world. Chuck Weirauch investigates their training and simulation expertise.

In one of the more remarkable climb outs for the airline industry, American Airlines Group has gone from bankruptcy in 2011 to in March 2015 having its stock join the elite Standard & Poor's 500 rating, the mark of a highly successful company. American Airlines Group is the holding company for American Airlines and US Airways. Chalk a good part of that success to its 2013 merger with US Airways, but another part of it comes from sound forward-thinking, along with the recent gradual uplifting of the US airline industry in general. American Airlines is now the world's largest airline in terms of passengers carried.

Along with American's progress come even more challenges for the airline's training personnel. Integrating the training best practices of both original airlines into a unified training plan under a Single Operating Certificate (SOC) is one of those challenges, while another will be providing training for the flight and cabin crews for hundreds of new airliners. American plans to add to its overall fleet at a rate of two per week in 2015.

The airline had previously placed orders to acquire 460 narrow-body, single-aisle aircraft from the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families beginning in 2013 through 2022 – the largest aircraft order in aviation history at the time. Starting in 2017, American will become the first network US airline to begin taking delivery of next-generation narrow-body aircraft that will further accelerate fuel-efficiency gains. In addition, the Fort Worth, Texas-based company will be retrofitting its entire fleets of existing 777, 767, 757 and Airbus A319 aircraft, with any resultant training requirements that may come with those improvements.

787 Introduction & Fleet 

Some of those new aircraft, 42 in fact, will be Boeing 787-8 and -9 Dreamliners in firm orders. American also has the right to acquire an additional 58 Dreamliners. The first 787 arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in January 2015, and will go into service in May. The American Dreamliner will make its international debut on June 2, flying a route from DFW to Beijing, China. The next new international route will be to Buenos Aires, Argentina, also starting that month. While the 787 will initially be flown domestically, American's long-range plans are to fly the 787 only on international routes.

Overall, the combined and merged American fleet of original American and US Airways airliners totals over 1,000 active aircraft that are flown by more than 15,000 aircrew. Together with wholly owned and third-party regional carriers operating as American Eagle and US Airways Express, the airlines operate an average of nearly 6,700 flights per day to 339 destinations in 54 countries. In total, American Airlines Group has more than 100,000 employees.

EFBs and Tablets

In 2013, American Airlines became the first commercial airline to gain FAA approval and implement iPads as Electronic Flight Bags (EFBs) in all phases of flight across all of its fleets. The airline has distributed more than 8,000 such tablets for this purpose. In September 2014, American also became the first mainline carrier to provide flight attendants with a held-held tablet, a Samsung Galaxy Note, to provide access to electronic manuals and do away completely with paper manuals. As a result, the airline's flight attendants can update their manuals in a matter of minutes.

Flight Training Centers

The American Airlines Flight Academy Training Center in Fort Worth is located near DFW. It features 28 full flight simulators; one 787 FFS (with another on the way in July), four 777, three 767, three 757, six 737, five MD-80 and two A320 FFSs, with two others for contract training. The facility also houses cabin trainers, classrooms, ditching pool training and dormitories. The nearby Training and Conference Center still serves as American’s base for flight attendant training, and has seven aircraft cabin simulators.

The US Airways Flight Training Center is located in Charlotte, North Carolina, that airline's hub. This training center features three 737, one 757, two A320 and two Bombardier CRJ FFSs. That airline also operates a smaller flight training center near the Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona.

Training Overview and Outlook

To get a more in-depth look at the combined efforts of both airlines to consolidate and integrate the new American Airlines training program, CAT interviewed American's Captain Jim Thomas, Managing Director of Flight Training & Standards.

CAT: How is flight training being conducted? Are the pilots from both airlines continuing to train at their respective training centers, or has there been an effort to consolidate flight training centers and resources? 

Thomas: We currently have three training centers; one near DFW, one near CLT and one near PHX. All are great facilities and are active with training. Training will continue to be separated, with legacy US pilots training at CLT and PHX, and legacy AA pilots training at DFW. There is an exception. Since we are at max capacity at DFW, we are able to take advantage of our other resources and train legacy AA pilots at another one of our centers, but must still use legacy AA instructors. Although appropriate consolidation of resources can be smart business, we aren’t rushing into any decisions regarding the centers. There are enough operational and training pressures during the merger that we aren’t interested in putting undue strain on our systems or employees during this time.

As I walked through our CLT training center today, it was exciting to see the number of pilots and flight attendants attending training. Later in the day, I attended a video conference with some folks in PHX, and soon I’ll be on a flight to DFW. Our task and challenge is for all of our people in the flight training and standards department to understand the scope and responsibility of the work we do, and to attempt to achieve the exact same training whether completed in DFW, CLT or PHX. We’ve got forty simulators and enough cabin trainers for all eight of our fleets, plus others to support our regional partners spread throughout our training centers. Our plan is to continue training separately until after SOC and maintain, or add devices as appropriate.

CAT: What yet needs to be done concerning the merger?

Thomas: We are just over a year into the merger and most of the work is still ahead of us. 2015 will be the most important year as we attain our Single Operating Certificate sometime in the second quarter. After SOC, the integration of the reservations systems, operating systems, maintenance systems, and training systems will await us. In addition, we continue to work with our represented work groups in an effort to wrap up joint agreements and soon thereafter seniority integration for those groups will be a priority as we move toward merger completion.

CAT: What does American feel is the primary benefit of the merger for operations? 

Thomas: Although not for me to necessarily answer as the training and standards guy, we know there is huge benefit from combining our route structures. That alone provides a greater network with valuable synergies because of the minimum number of overlapping routes between the airlines.

CAT: What have been some of the major flight training challenges concerning the merging of the two airlines?

Thomas: The main challenge in any flight training program is to achieve consistency through standardization so as to ensure safety. Accomplishing that through a merger can be a major challenge. We have taken a thoughtful and focused view of our overall adopt-and-go philosophy. Providing adequate communication of upcoming changes is always a challenge, especially when you have 15,000 crew members operating almost 1,000 aircraft every day. Using our various resources, we feel our pilots know what changes are coming in advance, are able to understand any change and once the implementation date arrives, and are able to execute in a predictable way. Identifying Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) differences and determining future direction when we are dealing with two excellent programs already rooted in deep loyalty is also challenging. The good news is that we have the luxury of dealing with strong programs; the bad news is that it can be difficult to decide which way to go.

CAT: Has there been a consolidation of the American and US Airways flight training programs, and how has this affected procedural training that may have been unique to each airline? Have the best practices from each airline been brought together under a consolidated flight training program, or is one airline's flight training program served as the core for such training? 

Thomas: Although operationally we’ve combined many procedures, the training programs take longer since they are tied to SOC because of the separate FAA-approved AQPs. Both airlines have operated very safely with their own training programs for many years, so the challenge when bringing the two together is to extract the best from both so that we have the best training program in the world. Much of that work is underway today so that once we reach SOC, we will have one AQP and can train the same across the airline. In many respects, we have used the adopt-and-go mantra, and in others, such as curriculum development, we have been able to use best practices.

CATHow is the new American Airlines addressing upset recovery training, and perhaps unstable approach/go-around procedural training?

Thomas: Fortunately, this type of training is already in place and is similar at the two airlines. Upset recovery, unstable approach, and go-around training have been staples of both training programs for many years. Recognizing the directives from the FAA and the value to the safety of our customers, we continue to tweak our programs to ensure our pilots always have the latest information. Although regarded with high emphasis at all times, we have increased the emphasis of these maneuvers accordingly based on recent events.

CAT: How has Boeing 787 flight training been integrated into the overall training management system? 

Thomas: Our 787 management and development teams, as well as the initial cadre of check airmen and instructors, have done an impressive job of developing a world-class training program for that aircraft. It is implemented and operating at full capacity as if we had a full complement of aircraft to fly. We have plenty of recent experience with the introduction of the A320 fleet into the legacy AA training system, and our team has used that experience to stay ahead of development and approval issues.

CAT: With the diversity of aircraft types in the fleet, is there a particular one that recently has 

had the most significant upgrades to procedural training?

Thomas: Yes, both the legacy AA A320 and 787 fleets have adopted and implemented a more procedural-focused ground training program. Historically at AA, ground training focused on aircraft systems, and procedural training occurred during simulator training. Today, we incorporate much more procedural training such as RNAV/RNP, abnormal/emergency, and enroute FMS procedures into the ground training. This type of training has existed at legacy US for a long time, and we are seeing the benefits of this transition at legacy AA.

CAT: Since American is adding a lot of new aircraft and replacing older airliners, has there been more emphasis on aircrew transitional training from one aircraft type to another? 

Thomas: That emphasis is always there, and our programs and instructors do an excellent job of setting the expectations for our pilots when they transition from an aircraft that may not be as technologically advanced. We saw this back in the days of props to jets, 727s to 767s, round dial to glass, VORs to FMSs, etc. It doesn’t make it any easier on the pilots, but our programs are designed to provide the training they need. We recently experienced this, as many of our legacy US pilots transitioned from the older round dial 737s that were being retired to the newer A320/330 and 757/767 aircraft with significant technological advancements they were not used to. Our pilots accepted the training challenge, and although it was difficult, finished training and are safe and confident in their new aircraft today.

CAT: I just heard about the Leadership-Decision-Making-Management (LDM) approach that is now being expanded into recurrent, initial qualification and advanced training on the American B777 fleet and being transitioned into other fleets. Dave Schlener will be presenting on this topic as part of the 2015 WATS Day One presentations. Are there any other new, unique and innovative training solutions and best practices that you would care to mention? 

Thomas: Dave’s passion, knowledge and great skill as an instructor were huge benefits for our company and our pilots. We will proudly carry on many things that he taught us while at AA. Since the LDM concept was not at US, it has been necessary for us to step back during the merger process and implement what all of our pilots can get the most value in the shortest time. US Airways has had a robust Threat and Error Management (TEM) process that the pilots are quite familiar with. TEM is part of the LDM model, so AA pilots are familiar with the concept. As a result, we are harmonizing the TEM model for all pilots and will continue to weave in enhancements, such as the rest of LDM, down the road.

CAT: Any latest developments in cabin crew training? We have covered cabin AQP, but there may be a new aspect to incorporating it into the combined airline operation.

Thomas: As you know, it’s difficult enough combining training programs for pilots and training programs for flight attendants during a merger and a huge level of complexity is added when you try to combine integrated pilot/flight attendant training. However, this is an extremely important element to overall flight crew coordination. Our goal, as soon as practical, is to accomplish the training together to allow face-to-face interaction between our pilots and flight attendants.