Yet again the APATS 2018 event, held in Singapore at the Marina Bay Sands conference centre, reflected the continuing growth of commercial aviation in Asia. Chris Long summarises some of the highlights.

With over 20% increase in attendance (not including invited students), a third more airlines, and 20% more exhibitors than last year, the biggest commercial aviation training event in the region broke the records yet again.

With the updated figures on the recruiting needs for pilots and maintenance crews in mind, the industry is becoming increasingly aware of the potential shortfall and the consequences that will have on the region’s economic health.

What is striking this time is the increasing emphasis on the person at the core of the issues. The immediately obvious concern is on attracting, training and, critically, retaining quality people into the industry - but that means not only the student, but importantly, the competent instructor.

Overview

The keynote speakers, from IATA, Singapore Airlines and Boeing, between them scoped the global and regional demands, and proposed solutions which embraced cooperation and fresh thinking on adapting both the training tasks and tools to better reflect present realities. New generations are entirely at home with the new technologies and training assets - the challenge is not only to pass on the fundamental aviation skills, but to add to them in recognition that the present day tasks for all those in the industry are more complex and demanding than ever before.

Pilot Conference

Speakers presented a wide range of ideas about the challenges in pilot training. These ranged from discussion about the MPL programme, to forms of sponsorship/support for aspiring pilots, through to specific opportunities to use data to focus on training needs and solutions. The “soft” skills and behaviours got attention. What characteristics do we look for in new recruits, and what style of instruction/facilitation should we encourage in instructors? Should the role of the instructor be properly recognised as a worthwhile (and well rewarded) career in itself? The regulators emphasised that cooperation and working closely with industry is essential to understand and shape the regulatory and training environment to the ever-changing operational demands as new technology is embraced.

Maintenance Conference

An innovation for this year’s APATS, and in response to a demand for this discipline to be addressed, a series of sessions for the maintenance community ran on both days. The driver for this is that, yes, there is a desperate need for pilots, but the demand for technicians is for twice as many people. Any shortfall will hugely impact on operational and commercial effectiveness. Presentations covered the challenges in introducing new skills and it is evident that the skills needed on the ramp have evolved. There is very little fault diagnosis - the on-board systems do that - but simply changing out LRUs still requires a fundamental understanding of the systems and increasingly, of the inter-relation between those complex systems and the effect of failure on related systems. New tools can help with that, and although virtual/augmented or immersive realities may be attractive (they are not necessarily the sole solution), how do we make best use of them? As new materials make up an increasing percentage of the aircraft now being operated by the airlines, then the techniques to identify and repair damage need to be added to the knowledge base of the technicians. As with other disciplines, there is attention being given to the behaviours of the maintenance crews - how do we introduce the culture of following procedures to a generation to whom that does not come naturally?

The open forum session provoked significant debate, as delegates shared their concerns, including the frustration of having to match work practices and records with so many differing requirements from a range of regulators. There was a strong call for common standards across the region. This possibly modelled on the EASA template.

Cabin Crew Conference

Once again there was great energy in the cabin crew stream. The wide ranging topics included incorporating cabin crew ergonomics right at the start of cabin design, through to the effectiveness of virtual/augmented reality, to reinforcing training on identifying and dealing with the ever-growing disaster of human trafficking were all issues that were covered. Discussion about what constituted effective CRM training was addressed, as was training for cabin fires and the challenge of maintaining standards across multi types and multi bases. Plenty to reflect on and debate.

Closing with Technology

The final (plenary) session addressed ideas on the use of new and emerging technology to create better training approaches and effectiveness - simply adapting existing structures does not answer the new world in an optimum way. Selecting the appropriate tools is key to improving the training, and, when fully integrated, can not only boost training and retention, but can also reduce time and cost in training.

Heads of Training Meeting

Naturally enough the concerns expressed at the Heads of Training meeting, held on the evening before the main event, expressed much the same views as became apparent during the conference. These notes reflect that.

The fast day-to-day pace of operational life in the aviation industry can lead us to believe that things must/do happen quickly. That may be true of that real world, but in the cautious world of regulation and fundamental change, things move at gentler pace.

When Jacques Drappier opened the Heads of Training (HoT) meeting he started with a reminder of what had been the topics of conversation at the same HoT gathering last year. The difficult truth is that the same issues are still at the top of the list of challenges which all those in training still have to manage.

Philip Adrian, representing the Aircrew Professional Training Group (APTG), ran through the key points. The APTG is a non-regulatory organisation made up from a broad range of industry professionals, which serves as an independent advisory source for government and regulatory authorities. It aims to highlight and bring to the attention of policy makers the global and national economic importance of the industry, and advise on solutions/best practice to address the primary issues. These are well known, but briefly, run to:

  1. Lack of pilots/technicians
  2. Quality of candidates
  3. Lack of common approach by regulators
  4. Too rapid expansion

Adrian addressed those issues, and noted that the predicted demand for commercial pilots still outstrips the existing supply pipelines. Whilst some areas, notably the United States, declare that there is no shortage, that is largely based on local conditions - there may be enough US licence holders, but the point which is missed is that, because of the asymmetric demand around the world, many of those experienced and competent pilots are moving away to join the global market. Not long ago the magnet of higher compensation was in the Gulf region. Now that attraction has moved to Asia, principally to China, where employment packages pull in the global pilot population.

At the same time as the demand for pilots has increased, the perception in a generation that is presently targeted for recruiting, is that the role of airline pilot is not an automatic choice. In a demographic which generally does not to aspire to a job for life, there is a tendency to look for a generic qualification which is portable in the job market. A consequence is that, even for those who might have started with an aeronautical degree of one sort or another, there is no guarantee that this career will be the one of choice. The pool is further reduced when (the essential) pre-selection prior to expensive flight training comes into play.

Other critical bars to filling the cockpit seats are the huge initial expense of the training - usually borne by (the family of) the student pilot, and the fact that 50% of the world’s population have historically not been encouraged to the role. There are still too few women at the front of the aircraft.

A major challenge is sourcing and retaining quality instructors. The industry should encourage a credible stand-alone career for good instructors, rather than that role continuing largely to be perceived as a mere stepping-stone to commercial aircraft. Increasingly ATOs are calling on the services of recent retirees, whose competence and credibility are well-calibrated.

What became evident from the subsequent discussions is that there is a patchwork of best practice and novel solutions, some led by organisations like the APTG (should there be an Asian-centric equivalent?), some by the regulators, and some by the airlines who are considering innovative funding and training solutions.

Cohesion of regulatory imperatives would also help. Daan Dousi from EASA wondered whether there could be an Asian equivalent of EASA to simplify cross-licence qualification/approvals?

It is also fundamental to the health of the industry that there are a sufficient number of competent technicians; for every desperately-needed pilot we need two technicians to support the predicted aircraft numbers. Alongside that separate recruiting, we need to recognise that the current regulations limit the style of training to dated and unattractive modes. The cycle for regulatory change is too slow - a life-cycle of five years and more for new regulation means that there is always a lag in training style and content, which therefore can’t compete against other fast-track industries/careers.

The absolute bedrock is the critical issue of funding. The industry will continue to find it hard to answer the call for the numbers unless/until the huge financial penalty at the start of the career can be mitigated, be it by government funding or - just imagine it - the industry itself collectively stepping up to the plate!

Still Climbing

APATS has established itself as the “go to” aviation training conference for the South East Asian region. With the level of attendance continuing to climb, the networking activity is increasing exponentially, and the exchange of ideas and knowledge ramps up accordingly. The immediate feedback was that it was “the best so far”!

Published in CAT issue 5/2018