Insights on how training organizations are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Group Editor Marty Kauchak writes.

Similar to other civil aviation businesses, airline training organizations have been caught up in the groundswell of social and business havoc generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Agile and adaptive organization staffs are employing learning technologies, when feasible, to minimize disruptions to their programs of instruction.

Rapid Responses to Training Pauses

Ian Cooper, Chief Operating Officer at Skyborne Airline Academy (Cheltenham, UK), noted, “Aviation is facing an unprecedented crisis because of COVID-19, with long-term economic implications.”  Emphasizing that at Skyborne the safety of its trainees, staff and their families is paramount, he said, “We took the action to temporarily halt our flying activities at our bases in the UK, Spain and the United States in line with local government recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, to protect local health services and save lives.”

Nonetheless, training continues at Skyborne thanks to technology and the resilience of its team. Cooper explained: “Within seven days we developed the Skyborne Virtual Airline Training Platform (VATP) to ensure training continuity for our cadets, receiving formal approval from the UKCAA. Our ATPL ground school lessons are currently taught remotely over video link, with each intake coming together with their instructors in virtual classrooms.”  

Cooper noted that in response to the short-term challenges COVID-19 could present to pilot training and ultimately, airline placement, his organization has also launched the Skyborne Skills Continuation Training policy. “From April 2020 onwards, pilots who complete our EASA Integrated or Combined Modular ATPL programs will receive 12 months of support free of charge after they graduate, with ongoing simulator training and revalidation of their Instrument Rating (IR) if they are not placed with an airline during that period. Ahead of airline selection, we will also provide our graduates with assessment preparation training. This offer is only eligible to commercial pilots that have successfully passed our selection process.”

Asked about the pandemic’s impact on the accession and selection process at Skyborne, Cooper pointed out his institution already conducts an online assessment with web-based aptitude and psychometric tests, “and we’ve built on this, with prospective trainees interviewed via video. Any new intake joining us during lockdown measures will be able to start their ATPL ground school via our VATP, with the aim that by the time that training phase is complete, flying operations will have resumed.”

Similarly, Karl Morten Rosenlund, Director of Training and accountable manager at Sandefjord, Norway-based Pilot Flight Academy, said that two days prior to the major restrictions put on all educational institutions in Norway, his organization started preparations on the implementation of distance learning for all students in the theory phase – and with good reasons. In one instance, the implemented quarantine regulations led to all foreign students returning to their home country. Rosenlund added, “Since they will be quarantined when returning to Norway they will be further delayed once returned. However, we have not received any indications of reduced overall demand by the airlines.”

Further, the closure of Norwegian educational institutions also affected flight and simulator training at the academy. “Since Saturday 14 March PFA has not conducted a single training session. Also, the entire Norwegian airspace (controlled and uncontrolled) has been closed to VFR flights and school/examination flights.”

Rosenlund explained that in terms of Pilot Flight Academy’s distance-learning capability, lesson videos were produced and system setups for live chats and Q&A sessions were prepared. “All traditional classroom activities were forbidden starting Friday 13th March and on that following Monday, the first lessons were given through distance learning.”

Return on Investment

From April 2020 onwards, pilots who complete Skyborne's EASA Integrated or Combined Modular ATPL programs will receive 12 months of support free of charge after they graduate, with ongoing simulator training and revalidation of their Instrument Rating (IR) if they are not placed with an airline during that period. Image credit: Skyborne Airline Academy.

Practitioners may glean some insights garnered by PFA after three weeks of its new distance learning experience. When Rosenlund spoke with CAT, his academy had been conducting a survey among the students who were participating in DL instruction. “We have felt the need to determine if the distance learning is preparing the students in a good enough way for them to sit upcoming exams. The level of feedback has been very good with 77 percent of the students participating in the survey,” the leader explained and continued, “The general feedback is that, under the current circumstances, distance learning is better than no progress. The survey will allow us to improve on how to deliver the distance learning and how to conduct the live chats and Q&A sessions. We do hope we will be able to gather the classes in the classrooms prior to exams, to be able to give the students the opportunity to meet with instructors and clarify hard-to-understand topics.”

Post-COVID

Both PFA and Skyborne Airline Academy are eyeing and preparing for the post-COVID-19 civil sector environment.

For its part, PFA reports a steady flow of new students signing up for the autumn classes during the recent three weeks. “We have plans to start four classes during August/September. Three of these classes are already full and the fourth filling by the day,” Rosenlund said and concluded, “I would not be surprised if the difference between demand and supply will become smaller the next year, but since this difference has been huge, we see no immediate problem with lack of students.”

Similarly, Skyborne’s Cooper concluded, “Aviation is facing an unprecedented crisis because of COVID-19, with long-term economic implications. But, having worked through several global shocks before, including the 9/11 terror attacks, the global financial crisis and the SARS pandemic, I’ve seen how resilient our industry is. There will be further challenges ahead, but we will come through this.”