Flag carrier Icelandair is seen as a pioneer in the establishment of the international hub concept. Chris Long visited Iceland and profiles the carrier’s training expertise.
Back in the late 1960s the Icelandic airline Loftleidir for the first time used its mid-North Atlantic position to establish a commercial airbridge for transatlantic travel. The easy access to both Europe and western North America using inexpensive medium range aircraft allowed it to become the revered low cost airline for the hippy generation.
With a robust home domestic flight service, aviation was, and is, deeply embedded in the national awareness, and from that modest beginning Icelandair has flourished. Serving as an early international hub concept, the principle of linking two relatively short flights from a home base meant that there were few costly overseas layovers for crews, and all the efficiencies of a single maintenance base can come into play.
Things have very evidently moved on. Not only has the network steadily built up as longer-range aircraft have been introduced, with the B767 now operating into San Francisco, and alongside the B757, expanding into more bases, but on the other side of the Atlantic, many more European airports now feature. The recent introduction of the B737 MAX 8 and 9 was intended to bring the latest technology and operating standards to Icelandair.
Another long established change is the use of those flights to deliver the main export business of Iceland - fresh fish - directly from the rich North Atlantic waters. In fact there is a strong case that this high value cargo generates a better dollar per kilo than the passengers. On top of that revenue, there has been a clever realisation that with the planned stopover there was an opportunity to build up the tourist business. Once overnight stopovers were offered free, but they proved to be such an attraction that the stopovers have now become a source of extra revenue, with no extra ticketing cost charged for those who break their travel in Iceland for up to seven days.
The Icelandair Group, the parent company of Icelandair, now provides a chain of hotels and a massive range of tours and attractions, such that the tourist industry has developed as a major contributor to the national employment and income. The long haul aircraft have opened the door to Japanese tourists, who are entranced by the Northern Lights, and base their holidays around that phenomenon.
All of that, of course, has Icelandair as the catalyst for that bourgeoning business, so that core capability has merited significant investment.
Last year well over four million passengers flew with Icelandair, and by the end of 2019 the fleet to carry them was planned to be six B737 MAX8, three B737 MAX9, four B767 and 23 B757. The impact of the present B737 MAX situation has yet to be fully assessed. The longer term challenge will be to select an aircraft that matches the B757 range and payload with the efficiencies of new generation aircraft (Boeing NMA, A321LR?).
Up until recently that traffic has been seasonal, but increasingly the tourist trade has become more evenly distributed through the year. At one time that winter decrease led to a reduction in flight and cabin crew during those winter months, but in some ways that became inefficient - re-hiring and re-training had an impact on both morale and cost. This year, for the first time, the pilot numbers will remain constant at 630, but the workload reduces in a more managed fashion. The principle of reduced rostering but stable flight deck crew numbers is now established; cabin crew numbers are presently 900 in the winter and up to 1,500 in high season.
The training for both cabin and flight deck crews is carried out at a purpose built training centre mid-way between Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, and the international airport at Keflavik. To cover both expansion and retirements (there are very low attrition rates) the airline needs 50 pilots a year. Given the relatively low population base (just under 350,000 for Iceland) there are not enough recruits to source all new pilots nationally. Although only English is used in the working environment, until recently there was a requirement for pilots to speak Icelandic, but that has now been relaxed and the relatively close proximity to Europe means that there are just over 20 non-Icelandic pilots - principally from the Western European countries.
The introduction of the B737 MAX fleets obviously meant an additional training task, and, although Boeing has created a Common Type Rating, Icelandair chose to keep the B737 pilots as a separate team - once converted, the intention was for those crews to stay with that fleet exclusively. The training system is thorough, and even before the recent accidents, Icelandair had noted the change to MCAS and successfully identified it as an item that needed to be specifically briefed and trained for. As with the rest of that type’s operators, they now have to await developments.
The training centre, opened in 2015, is home to both the instructors and the training platforms. Apart from the training carried out with Boeing in Crawley, UK, as part of the B737 MAX purchase agreement, all training is carried out in Iceland. This is provided by TRU Flight Training Iceland (TRU FTI), which is two thirds owned by Icelandair and one third by USA-based TRU Simulation + Training. All full flight simulators (FFS) are manufactured by TRU Simulation + Training, and all have EASA certification, with the B757-200 having FAA certification as well. The first FFS (B757-200) arrived in January 2015, with a B737-8 MAX coming online in September 2018, immediately followed by a B767-300 in October 2018. TRU FTI runs all the administration and can provide instructors to support training for third parties (there is still a strong demand from B757 and B767 operators). Icelandair provides its own instructors for its own training, thus ensuring reinforcement of the strong company culture.
Naturally there are online training options, but face-to-face training, not just with the instructors but with peers, is highly valued. Baldursson is struck by the counter-intuitive beneficial effects of the post 9/11 closing off of the flight deck. Now forced to communicate for the most part by remote, the essential cooperation is fostered by strong CRM training, and the mutual understanding generated by means of those regular CRM sessions has actually resulted in better team working. Captain Össur Brynjólfsson, Postholder Crew Training, is keen to show the lounge-based room for those CRM workouts - the drive is to create an informal environment which enables the joint teams to relax and have a free exchange of ideas and build the team-working ethos.
Given the demanding weather conditions that this northerly base experiences, there is great emphasis on manual flying skills, and that has been reinforced by the enthusiastic adoption of EBT, the training for which has been led by Mike Varney and his team. Now that Phase 1 has been completed, Icelandair is moving into the Mixed Phase, in which the regulatory imperatives are respected, but the results of data analysis of the Icelandair flights shapes the complimentary training. The instructor training has been interesting - most instructors readily adopt the principle of facilitation and subsequent (self) assessment by trainees. However, those who adapt are not always the younger ones - the attitude and mindset of the instructors seems to be the critical factor.
This change of training pattern has led to an increase in overall training time. Historically the annual recurrent training in a FFS was a four hour session on day one, followed by two hours on day two, that twice a year. Now there is a total of five days ground training, with two days of that online. Two days are classroom based with instructors, and one day a joint CRM session. The OPC is run twice a year, a total of 16 hours in the FFS. Brynjólfsson is pleased that those joint CRM sessions last year featured cabin crew and flight deck crew. This year, for the first time, they now include engineer/technician teams. Although the latter were initially puzzled by this requirement, they have now bought into it enthusiastically; pilots are more precise (and patient) when signalling faults, and the engineers are more understanding of the need to keep the pilots informed so that they can keep the passengers up to date.
One of the new elements is the content of day two of the FFS training - this now focuses on UPRT. The new FFSs have been updated with the appropriate software, such that, for instance, they can show the full stall. This interest in UPRT started way back in 2005, and looked at both high and low altitude (traffic pattern) scenarios. By way of reinforcement they run through the full Air France AF447 accident in the FFS - not an easy review, but a convincing demonstration.
One intriguing training task is to cover the charter operation. This runs two B757 aircraft which have a luxury 60 seat fit. This can operate anywhere around the world, to virtually any airport (including, for instance, Katmandu and other Class C airports) that can accept the B757. Consequently the supporting FFS database has a phenomenal range of airfields available.
Icelandair primarily takes on technicians who have graduated from either the local technical training school, or who train at a centre in Denmark. The practical training is OJT in the maintenance hangar, but just to give the students a real incentive they dismantle and reassemble a DC3 aircraft and make it ready for a summer months flight demonstration season.
Cabin Crew Training
All cabin crew training is carried out in-house. Training platforms range from a former Monarch Airlines 757 fuselage modified in house as a cabin mockup, to a TFC-manufactured B737 cabin trainer and B757/767 doors, overwing and emergency exit trainers which are also used for both crew and CRM training. The attraction of the cabin crew role for the local population is high - it pays well, and the life style is appreciated. Many of the cabin crew have a medical background, consequently the First Aid training is, again, carried out in house. An investment in modern fire training has been made, with the acquisition of a Flame Aviation unit. According to Brynjólfsson, this platform has been very well received by both the pilots and cabin crew.
The training cycle for the annual recurrent training for cabin crew consists of two separate sessions of two days, twice a year. With a further utilisation of e-learning the plan is to reduce the number of training days in classroom in the near future. The same applies for the initial cabin crew training where an e-learning plays a significant part of the course.
Ab Initio Pilot Training
Icelandair Chief Pilot, Captain Linda Gunnarsdóttir has initiated an ab initio cadet pilot project, with some eight students a year being selected and trained by L3 Link Simulation and Training. The cost of the training is underwritten by Icelandair, with the low-interest loan to be repaid once the graduate pilots start work with the airline. That training is presently being carried out in Hamilton, New Zealand. Early results are very promising.
As with many things in Iceland, the work/life balance is identified as being very important. Not only must there be equal opportunity and pay for all (no gender bias) but the lifestyle must be sustainable. Gunnarsdóttir is determined that Icelandair continues to keep that principle within the airline’s culture.
Published in CAT issue 2/2019