A look at the pilot training philosophy at a fast-growing Gulf Airline. Chris Long travels to Sharjah.
Globally, it is noticeable that whilst reasonable numbers of aircraft are still being ordered, recently there have been fewer mega orders. Air Arabia has bucked that trend. With the recent order for a further 120 Airbus A320neo family aircraft, including XLRs, there is a very impressive declaration of intent to continue to expand in the region and, by using the A321neo XLR, reaching beyond to more distant destinations.
A critical part of expansion is ensuring that there are sufficient aviation professionals to effectively operate all these new resources. Captain Nadhem AlHamad, General Manager of the Alpha Aviation Academy at Sharjah, UAE, is focused on pilot supply for present and future needs. An important part of what the Alpha Aviation Academy UAE does is to provide its services to the initial pilot training arm of Air Arabia, so these two companies are very close – in fact, they are physically located in the same building, making the ties and feedback very effective.
JV and NAA Roots
The training regime has its roots in a JV between Air Arabia PJSC and Alpha Aviation Group, which was set up in 2008 and has had time to establish solid foundations for this expansion. An important part of that development was the involvement of the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA).
The Alpha Aviation Group is the investment powerhouse behind the various organisations under its umbrella, but AlHamad is very clear that the Sharjah-based academy is independent of the other training entities and can formulate its own best practice. Now with 10 years of training behind it, it is in a good position to plan and deliver the necessary training for future generations of pilots. There is no rush to expand the scale too fast, as the major driver is to retain the proven quality and then continue with the organic growth to meet the increased demand.
An MPL-Based ATPL
Some basic assumptions were made early on. The ab initio training would work toward an ATPL, a process that is under the oversight of the UAE GCAA, which has regulations very similar to the EASA structure. The course follows an MPL pattern, the theoretical part of which is in tune with the ATPL, such that the full qualification can be awarded once the graduate reaches 1500 hours.
The start point is a 10-stage selection process comprised of individual assessments covering English proficiency, medical fitness, mathematics, physics, psychomotor skills and a panel interview; the process includes both Alpha Aviation Academy UAE and Air Arabia in the pre-course interviews. Some 75% of the candidates are high-school graduates in the 17-19 age bracket; the remaining 25% are those embarking on a second career and are 28-34 years of age.
Since March 2019, the cadets have been equipped with iPads to start the nine-month-long ATPL Theoretical Knowledge (ground school) segment, which is based on the CAE Oxford course and is completed at the Academy in Sharjah. The students then undertake the 70 hours of Phase 2 (core flying) practical training with Airways Aviation Education on the Gold Coast in Australia, flying the Cessna 172.
One intriguing factor is the addition of a further 10 hours of Open (supplementary) training to be used in no jeopardy (not pass/fail) flights to help when, as frequently happens in any training pattern, an ab initio student finds a bump in the road to progress, and just needs a gentle nudge to overcome the issue.
On their return to Sharjah, cadets address the next phase on a generic Mechtronix (now TRU Simulation + Training) FNPT II. This will be replaced with a new A320 fixed-base simulator in March 2020. After that, the training continues with Air Arabia’s two A320 FFSs. Overall, the entire course, to the point of issue of an MPL licence, lasts for 22-24 months, which not only allows the proper time to complete the training but builds in a small buffer of the occasional break for the students in what is a very intensive and long course of training.
Cadet to Contract to Command
Since this training started, 680 cadets from more than 70 nationalities have been accepted into training; at present, there are 220 cadets undergoing training. The Academy has seen over 400 cadets graduate, of which the majority has received permanent contracts with Air Arabia and the rest have achieved placement with international airlines. All the courses for 2020 are already filled but AlHamad is proud of the consistent quality of the graduates and is determined to maintain that.
The success of the programme has seen 24 (and climbing) graduates move to command roles after about two years on the line. Whilst, of course, all captains have to meet benchmark standards, the instructors who are training candidates to this level have noted that the MPL graduates have a profound technical knowledge. This is because they have had so much time in A320 training both in ground school and all the FBTs and FFSs. In practical terms, they have had nine months and 180 hours of A320 training – a marked increase above the 50-day courses of the more conventional route. In addition, because they have been steeped in CRM and TEM from the start of their training, their soft skills are also well-developed.
The Long View
The extended lead time to provide a fully competent First Officer means that a very long-term view must be taken and that’s not easy in a commercial world where there is constant short-term financial pressure in a rapidly changing industry.
Having managed to drive toward that more distant horizon, AlHamad nonetheless acknowledges that there are day-to-day and ongoing challenges to maintain and build on the quality. That goal means that the growth will have to be controlled to about 5-7% from 2022 onward.
One significant issue is the sourcing of Phase 2 instructors. As with many other providers of MPL training, the demanding qualifications of this cadre, who need to be competent in ab initio training, which is a very specific skillset, and to have an understanding (if not actual experience) of operational airline flying, means that there is a either a very small pool to draw on or ATOs have to accept a major training task to supply any absent skills. The co-location of the two training organisations means that there is a seamless transfer for the ab initio to the formal airline training. A benefit of the immediate proximity of Air Arabia crews means that experienced instructors are available for the more advanced training – type and command ratings are always needed as well as, of course, recurrent training.
On the subject of the content of the course, there is a strong belief that there needs to be well-informed and considered revision of the syllabus to more accurately reflect the real knowledge needed in line operation. In AlHamad’s view, too much of the packaged material is generic and requires unnecessary extra work to tailor it to the needs of an ATO like Alpha Aviation Academy UAE.
Alongside that desired change in content, there is an increasing importance emerging for soft skills throughout the training and career as an airline pilot, and this results in a need for specialist trainers; these must be able to instruct/guide the best methods of boosting those soft skills, and experts seem to be in short supply. Given the relatively recent identification of such skills as fundamental, it has become evident that there is a lack of experience in the delivery of such training. To build better understanding and techniques in this sphere, AlHamad has suggested that a long-term (five year) study by academic specialists would help to identify a clear path to improvement. Researchers who work in cooperation with, and have ready access to, operating crews at both the ATO and the airline, would result in more appropriate training patterns in those essential soft skills.
The training industry doesn’t stand still, nor should it, and it is essential to have an open and enquiring approach to new solutions. AlHamad and his team certainly have that – and are well-positioned to provide the competent training for the present and new generations of pilots.
Published in CAT issue 1/2020