Bernie Baldwin catches up on some of the latest cabin technologies being developed by manufacturers and employed by training organisations.

Flight attendants are arguably the front line of an airline’s personal interaction with the passenger. And while they do deliver the service elements of the onboard product, their principal role is, was and always shall be safety.

To train them fully for that task, new technologies and products are constantly being introduced to ensure that the process is efficient and cost-effective. While some developments take in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), other new products are simply responses to developments at the aircraft manufacturers.

Marc Van den Broucque, is managing director of Spatial, which has “more-or-less doubled the client base” since he and business partner Henry Robertson did a management buyout in September 2016. “This year, we’re pretty confident that we are going to be, at least by volume, the largest manufacturer of cabin training equipment in the world,” he claims.

Training Devices

In the past 12 months, Van den Broucque reports, Spatial has introduced a number of new cabin training devices. “They’ve each been introduced for very different reasons,” he notes. “Probably the most significant one is the new Airbus A320 door, which – to be fair – rather than it being a technological improvement is a replica of the new door that Airbus has just released. We have delivered five of those to date. To be honest, when Airbus delivers a new door, it’s like a gift to people like us.

“In terms of product innovations, there have been a few,” he continues. “The one I’d highlight is the mobile virtual slide trainer. This device is basically a projected environment outside an aircraft door. We integrate it fully with a door trainer so when a cabin crew member opens a door in armed mode, they see roll out – on the wall that they are facing – a depiction of the slide actually deploying. That can be deploying in a normal scenario, like at an airport, or if they’ve had an emergency evacuation and they’re in, say, woodland or on water.

“It also trains, however, for inadvertent slide deployment. So you can see the impact if there are stairs at that door and you open the door in armed mode. You’ll see the malfunction being the slide raising up in front of you because obviously there are stairs blocking the way, or even at a jet bridge with the effect of the slide inflating right in front of your face,” adds Van den Broucque.

These are scenarios could not be practised safely with physical trainers. And the MD reports that there has been a high level of interest, particularly as the device is interchangeable between door trainers.

Virtual Reality

Avietra specialises in the use of VR for training. Its CEO, Professor Luca Chittaro, reports that in the past year the company has designed and built a software environment (AVIETRA VR Engine) specifically to support the transition from traditional to virtual reality (VR) experiences in the philosophy behind cabin crew training.

“We are able to create and tailor VR training experiences with airline-specific customisations that concern every aspect of the simulation such as: the environment (aircraft, galleys, equipment, uniforms, livery, virtual crew members), checklists and procedures (specific actions to perform, sequences of actions, decision criteria), and the feedback trainees receive (any visual, sound, voice feedback in response to trainee’s actions, tailored debriefing and instruction,” he said.

Chittaro is confident about the potential for further VR usage. “Our VR scenarios can replace typical classroom materials as well as text- and image-based e-learning, and for some tasks also physical mock-ups,” he explains. “In addition, they improve the effectiveness of training. Members of our team have published several studies in international scientific journals, showing that the use of 3D/VR for learning cabin procedures produces results that are superior to traditional text- and image-based methods in terms of emotional engagement, clarity, learning, knowledge retention, and also psychological factors such as self-efficacy and perception of control.”

Echoing Van den Broucque, he adds, “One of the totally new features for cabin crew training is the possibility of experiencing situations that could not be simulated realistically before for safety reasons, for example major fires, emergency evacuations, or crowd control with hundreds of passengers involved.”

To complete the spectrum of virtual training options, Avietra also uses augmented reality (AR). “In AR, virtual elements are superimposed over the real world, creating additional training opportunities,” Chittaro remarks. “For example, trainees can be inside a traditional physical mock-up of the cabin, wearing a see-through pair of glasses or keeping a tablet in their hands, see a virtual fire or a virtual unruly passenger in specific places of the physical cabin, and manage such situations.”

New Technology

In terms of technology upgrades at Spatial, these have been in materials and inflight entertainment (IFE). “With the use of more advance materials, we’re in the process of building a cabin emergency evacuation trainer (CEET) on a carbon fibre motion frame,” states Van den Broucque. “The off-the-shelf motion system which is being provided to us was rated for a 12 tonne system. By using the carbon fibre frame, we have been able to raise that by about 4 tonnes. Obviously we can add a whole lot more in terms of functionality and equipment to the CEET whilst maintaining the performance.

“Also recently, we’ve done a full replica of the IFE control systems, which we haven’t done before,” he continues. “That eliminates training on the aircraft, because we’re able to offer a replication of how you start all of the welcome videos, the welcome music, reset the seats, reset the IFE and so on. So far, the results are looking pretty good and it will be delivered in a couple of months’ time. The launch customer is Aer Lingus.”

TFC Simulatoren und Technik has also been working on new developments. The company’s managing director, Mark Goossens, notes that these are “both driven by us – as we believe in more advanced features for cabin crew training – and by some of our customers as they see the need as well.”

His view of the future of cabin crew training has three elements. “Aircraft or type familiarisation will be done in virtual training sessions on a laptop tablet or similar with various exercises that are recorded by the LMS (learning management system). Such a system provides maximum flexibility, can be distributed to each new crew member or to each person converting to another type of aircraft,” says Goossens.

“Emergency and service training in VR is a trend which is just starting,” he adds. “It is a very fast and realistic way of training with many scenarios, even some that cannot be exercised on real trainers, like releasing the slide/raft from the fuselage during ditching.”

Moving on to CST (cabin service trainer) and CEET training, Goossens describes this as “the real stuff”. He points out that most of the regulators in Europe understand that VR training “can cover recurrent training and that once every three years, everyone has to go on the real simulators, to handle emergencies with real equipment and feel the forces”. With these three stages completed, trainees can go on the real aircraft.

“The regulators are unfortunately running miles behind,” Goossens observes. “It will be the industry with their customers to show the way forward and bring cabin crew training to the next level. Stages 1-3 will make cabin crew more competent, less prone to errors, save time and money and in the long run make aviation even safer,” he declares.

While manufacturers have been developing new cabin training systems, what have the training organisations themselves been putting into service? Egle Vaitkeviciute, CEO at Vilnius-based BAA Training, confirms that in March this year the company acquired a brand new Airbus A320 door and over-wing exit and slide trainer, manufactured by ASP Air-Space of Finland.

“The device simulates door system operation both in normal and emergency conditions, and escape hatch opening. The main front left Door 1L of the trainer is an original A320 door assembled with all mechanisms and drives, which allows a real hands-on experience,” she emphasises. “The trainer includes an attendant seat (double) with a handset and a FAP (flight attendant panel), near the main door and triple seats for passengers (two rows) with call the flight attendant button. Exercises for the crew in the cockpit are activated with an instructor station where a touchscreen is implemented. A slide is applicable for Airbus A318/A319/320/321 as its height is 3.5 metres.”

Vaitkeviciute says that BAA Training’s business philosophy is driven by core values such as flexibility and value creation. “Thus it is our daily goal to focus on our clients’ needs providing complete training services from A to Z. The decision to acquire an Airbus A320 door and slide trainer has been made based on that,” she explains.

“Such a trainer is used for both pilot and cabin crew personnel training indicating that it is needed for all airlines operating A320s. Taking into consideration that there is no other such level trainer in the Baltic States and Vilnius can be easily reached via main European aviation hubs, it made absolute sense for us to give our clients a complete Airbus 320 training package,” Vaitkeviciute states.

Lufthansa Aviation Training has launched a number of new training devices recently at its six training locations, according to managing director, Ola Hansson. The first is a C Series (now Airbus A220) CEET in Zurich. SWISS was the first operator of the type in the world, using it on European routes to replace the Avro RJ100. “To ensure appropriate cabin crew training, LAT installed a CEET for the new [A220-100/300] in 2017 – the first such CEET worldwide.”

LAT also has a new A350 door trainer at its Munich centre. “Using our door trainers, cabin crews will gain professional expertise to quickly and decisively carry out all the movements required in the event of an emergency on the respective aircraft types,” Hansson remarks. “In June 2018, Lufthansa received its tenth Airbus A350-900 which is based in Munich, so to familiarise cabin crews with the requirements of the aircraft’s door, we installed an A350-900 door trainer.”

An innovative device added by LAT is a ‘burning mobile phone trainer’. “Airlines warn passengers to pay extra attention to their electronic devices during flight,” Hansson elaborates. “This security statement has a serious background: if an electronic device such as a mobile phone or tablet has slipped into the gap between the upholstery and the backrest or in between two seats, it could get trapped and – in worst case – catch fire. Knowing the risk is important, being able to fight a fire caused by a mobile device can save lives.

“To allow cabin crews to train such a specific situation, LAT has just developed a mobile phone fire trainer. The device gets hot, smoke emanates and it has LEDs that simulate flickering fire,” Hansson explains. “Lufthansa already uses the device, while Austrian Airlines will include it in their firefighting training procedure in the future and other airlines are also interested.”

In other developments, LAT has developed a new cockpit door keypad trainer, which can be used for training on any type of aircraft, with doors opening in both directions (into or out of the cockpit). The company is also preparing to introduce a brand new B777-9 CEET at its Frankfurt training centre in early 2020.

“Besides the training devices mentioned, we also completely redesigned the basic training for flight attendantsof Lufthansa in terms of content and technology,” Hansson comments. “The result is a training course that takes into account megatrends such as digitisation, connectivity and individualisation. This is why we are always anxious to offer state-of-the-art training devices.”

And that statement is about as good a desire as any airline can ask of whichever training organisation they employ.

Testing the VR/AR Possibilities

The use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in cabin training has become a hot topic and manufacturer Spatial has recently launched a survey to discover more of the industry’s needs.

Spatial’s MD, Marc Van den Broucque, notes that with every new technology, there are “many different ways that it can be implemented and lots of new and interesting things it can do”. However, he admits that while the company has had ideas about where VR and AR can improve cabin training, it has found “a lot of limitations” too.

“A lot of our clients who have an interest in VR are asking, ‘Can we shift all our training to VR and make things much easier and much cheaper for us?’ Van den Broucque reports. “Unfortunately, that’s not easy to answer, because to be able to do that depends on, first of all, simple building blocks being in place, like hardware. Equally it involves more complex questions being answered like, ‘Can I actually, from an EASA or FAA point of view, certify my crew with this equipment?’

“What we’ve seen in practice is that there have only been a handful of airlines who actually use VR. The majority tend to be in-house systems. We’ve seen a couple of our competitors develop VR solutions, but we haven’t really seen any uptake of those,” he adds. “So I’m not entirely sure that VR is going to deliver on all of the promises which people think it will.

“The focus for us is trying to come up with a product which, for our clients, is a ‘slam dunk’, one which as a business case is going to be a very easy one to sell to customers,” the MD explains. “The problem that you have is that what people are trying to do is, for instance, replace a door trainer, with which you can already efficiently train a class of 20 people within half an hour.

“With a VR trainer, all it does is take out the door trainer and replace it with 20-odd Windows computers which, because they are Windows computers, are likely to break every two years and need fixing and so on. A lot of the hardware is new to the market and the pace of technological change is high and therefore you have other concerns in the background about ongoing support for those products as well.

“What we’re wondering is, are people making a smart choice moving into VR or are people getting taken by the hype around the technology and not necessarily delivering a system which provides all the meaningful benefits they sought to achieve,” Van den Broucque confirms.

“These are some of the hypotheses we want to test, because clearly everyone wants to use the technology but there are some issues about the implementation in the market – otherwise they’d be selling like hot cakes and they’re not. We want to understand why that is and to design a product which goes to fulfil the first stated goal – making training either better or more efficient,” he concludes.

Published in CAT issue 4/2018