The C-19-triggered deficit in training capacity is temporary. Growth, and the pilot shortage will eventually return. Now is the time to develop the Flight Academy of the Future, suggests Captain John Bent, FRAeS.

The unprecedented global disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a massive close down of airline operations. The long-term impact on legacy behaviours, globalism, economies, trade practices, travel, ways of life, communications, and airline survival cannot yet be fully known, but it is already significant.

The impact of previous global shocks to airline industry growth was usually temporary. The Airbus chart (Figure 1), covering the period 1967-2014, replicated by other analysts, shows that after every shock, airline growth returned to the average ‘linear’ trend line, in some cases more rapidly than could be accommodated. Put another way, the average growth line continued after a crisis and even accelerated (in the past 10 years averaging 6.2% per annum).

Figure 1: World airline traffic growth through global shocks (Airbus graph)

The development of air transport over just one century has been remarkable, and the technology employed has often been boosted by conflict. The C-19 crisis, which has many of the hallmarks of conflict, may lead to a new boost.

For more on the impact COVID-19 has had on pilot training, watch our specialist panel discuss the subject at our virtual APATS event.

After C-19, ‘business as usual’ as we knew it in January 2020 is most unlikely. Governments will attempt to keep State airlines going, but many airlines may go out of business. Those airlines with the most efficient and greenest aircraft, the most automated operations, and strongest route networks and licences are the most likely to survive.

The rapid insertion of new levels of efficiencies into all aspects of the airline business will be essential to survive and compete. Benefits of broader trade grouping and mergers may become increasingly attractive. Change resistance will be the strongest barrier to the rapid steps needed for recovery.

Surviving ATOs, airlines and aviation infrastructure will need to embrace advances in technologies to compete and grow. These include 5G, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence, accelerated and adopted at a new and pressing rate. Those airlines that rapidly embrace these changes have the best chance to secure a place in the new future of the air transport industry. Global aviation infrastructure will also need to move up to more efficient standards worldwide.

Complacency from Recent History

Every 15 years, on average, the airline industry doubles. Out to 2038, Boeing had projected a doubling of the global fleet, tripling in the Asia Pacific region. What history tells us:

1997: IATA projected pilot shortages
2001: Airlines post-911 - "see, no shortage now"
2003-04: SARS & Fuel Crisis - "see, no shortage"
2004-05: Retirement age raised to 65 - "see, no shortage"
2007: USA Regionals started to run out of pilots to hire
2008: Global Financial Crisis - no hiring "see, no shortage"
2010: Icelandic Volcano - US$3B lost and Euro shortages shaved
2011: Heavy orders of new aircraft into the future
2012: Growth in Asia & surge of age 65 retirements
2013: Recession - "see, shortages not as projected"
2020+: COVID-19 Pandemic - a staggered U-Shaped recovery?

From the most recent Boeing projections, the long-term linear pilot demand is simple to assess. Unless you believe that airliners will be pilotless in the near term, the pilots-required calculation can be based on a rough average of 10 pilots for every new aircraft delivered (most conservative ratio in Figure 2 from CAE). That’s 44,040 new airliners x 10 = 440,400 pilots over 20 years. Assuming that growth post-C-19 eventually returns to ‘somewhere’ close to the average 20-year trend line, longer-term aircraft orders may be initially stunted but eventually return. An interval of up to three years is possible to full recovery from the C-19 crisis.

Figure 2: Average number of pilots needed per aircraft type for airline operations (CAE graph)

Pre-C-19, the same Boeing projections forecast that 40% of deliveries would go to the Asia Pacific region (17,390). Extrapolation of this demand into a linear value equates to 8,695 pilots per year to cover the new aircraft and approximately 4,000 to cover retirements = 12,695 new pilots per year in the region. In the short-term (up to three years?) there may be no shortage of experienced pilots who are furloughed by C-19, allowing a period for consolidation and preparation for the surge that will inevitably arrive.

Pre-C-19 calculations focussing on regional self-sufficiency showed a shortage of flight schools in Asia Pacific; this shortage has been covered by ATOs in the US, Europe, and other regions. China alone provided internal ATO capacity for approximately 2,500 pilot graduates per annum, but against a need for approximately 3,900.

However, post-C-19, a short-term suppression of demand for pilots will probably result in the closure of many Approved Training Organisations, leaving the industry with a severe deficit of training capacity for the surge to come. Such capacity usually requires years to establish from a standing start, and while in some ways contraindicated, now is the time to plan.

Career Interest and Motivation

Longer-term interest in a piloting career in the eventual numbers needed is hard to predict and may or may not meet demand. In the short-term the demand should be easy to refill with returning pilots who are currently out of work. But not all those out of work will return, and from where will future pilots of the required calibre be found after post-C-19 consolidation? Training for new generations will need to consider:

  • Post-Millennial generations, some from single child families
  • Multi-taskers with iPads and smartphones since age one
  • A relatively short attention span
  • Used to ‘gamified’ learning such as the Khan Academy or Duolingo
  • To try to fit into a ‘boring’ almost fully automated workplace
  • Able to deal with the next black swan moment such as the Hudson River event

For such a safety critical industry, the pilot selection process has been ripe for attention for some time. Selection standards should be enduring, but usually rise and fall in concert with airline supply and demand. ICAO has provided broad standards guidance for pilot and instructor selection and training in Annex 1 PANS-TRG Doc 9868.

As the air forces of the world know well, the ‘right stuff’ is essential in piloting expensive military aircraft, and there can be no better investment and safety insurance than relevant robust and exhaustive selection. However, in the competitive environment in which airlines operate, short-term thinking can prevail during rapid growth, driving selection and recruitment down to minimum standards to allow expanding fleets to be crewed.

Long-term, the most cost-effective and cheapest part of the pilot pipeline is selection. In all parts of the process following selection, failure becomes increasingly expensive. Inappropriate selection can insert that ‘latent pathogen’ which may emerge under pressure later in a career.

Testing pilots and candidates should be without fear or favour. There is an even more dangerous practice which still occurs in some regions where well-placed individuals apply undue influence to get a friend or family member recruited into an airline as a pilot, bypassing normal selection protocols. Usually those engaged in such practices are ignorant of the possible consequences of a future accident, and the part they played may well be forgotten.

Pilot Training Standards and Quality

The variability in quality and relevance of the pilot delivery pipeline from selection through primary training to the airliner right seat is well documented. The training standards applied by the 2,000 or more commercial flight schools around the world remain variable, many States cling to past CPL practices, and relatively few apply the latest ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices. There has been concern for some time that global training standards in commercial ab initio pilot training remain unacceptably variable, as the following suggests:

2011 - An ICAO study revealed concern that many State training standards and knowledge testing were not capable of assuring the preparedness of CPL/IR-licenced pilots to enter and successfully complete an airline’s initial indoctrination and type rating.

2012 - Bill Voss, former President, Flight Safety Foundation (FSF), stated that “the elephant in the room has always been that training standards have not kept up with technological changes in aircraft.”

2015 - A study conducted for the FAA and the Professional Aviation Board of Certification (PABC) by the Centre for Aviation Safety Research (CASR) at Saint Louis University showed that only 42% of licenced pilots tested in the study would be considered “well-prepared” to exercise the privileges of the CPL/ATP.

2015 - Commentary at the European Aviation Training Summit (EATS) in Madrid from Harry Nelson, a respected senior safety official, urged revamping pilot training worldwide. (Nelson is currently independent chair of the Cranfield Safety Board, the Human Factors Group of the RAeS, and the FSF international advisory board.) In one of the most forceful industry warnings to date about the dangers of undue reliance on aircraft automation, Nelson said that as planes become more reliable, and older generations of trainers with strong manual flying skills retire, their replacements typically lack comparable experience dealing with real-life emergencies. Tomorrow’s instructors will not be teaching from personal exposure” to emergencies that required pilot interventions, “They’ll be speaking from hearsay”.

As flight-control systems continue to improve, making automation a major driver of safer skies, airline pilots spend the vast majority of their flying hours programming and monitoring onboard systems. Manual flying is rare.

Nelson said that too many veteran aviators have come to view recurrent training sessions as an unwelcome annual or semiannual chore that can endanger their jobs if they perform poorly, rather than an opportunity to fine-tune skills, improve decision-making and learn new safety concepts using increasingly realistic simulator technology. Automation’s downsides include low morale among many pilots. “It used to be cool to be a pilot”, Nelson said, “but these days for a lot of pilots it’s just another job”. For pilots in the middle of their careers “there is no perceived upside to the training,” he added, “and that’s wrong”.

Nelson’s comments amount to a striking criticism of many pilot training principles that airlines have relied on for decades, and which helped usher in the safest period in commercial aviation globally.

2016 - A motion tabled at the International Flight Training Conference at the Royal Aeronautical Society: “Despite improvements in national and international training programmes, with wide variations in training syllabuses and different approaches taken by National Aviation Authorities, there is a pressing need to explore whether it might be beneficial to harmonise training and evaluation standards and processes internationally, and whether some form of global resource (and/or infrastructure) for the flight crew training community might be helpful, and, if agreed, the constraints in achieving such goals.”

More Effective Pilot Training = Improved Airline Safety

The past century of rapid technological development has led to statistically remarkable levels of safety, unrivalled by any other form of transport. Advancing technology and automation has increasingly protected us from the inevitable human error. But human complacency can be a bi-product of automation which can mask the gathering threat of inadequate pilot performance when automation fails.

Earlier pilot generations had to learn deeply or sometimes perish.  Experience loss from retirement, combined growth and lagging training reforms may combine into a set of  unintentional consequences which impact future safety systems. Put another way, the proportion of pilots who have ‘seen it before’ and can react correctly is shrinking. As often flagged, the rapid progression of automation degrades manual flying skills. For example, a long-haul pilot may only handle the aircraft manually 3-5 hours per year.

A large proportion of baby-boomer pilots is now retired and their ‘experience reservoir’ lost to new pilot generations, leaving only new, more relevant standards of training to fill the gap.

Can we assume that the current super-safe airline industry will continue this way? Unlikely, as recent loss of control accidents suggest. We can reasonably predict that fatal accidents with causal human factors will continue, as automation continues to diminish the need for human intervention, and the skills necessary to intervene are lost. Looking back one decade, the following (incomplete) sample shows fatal accidents judged to have significant pilot loss of control at the core. In 80% of these cases the aircraft was serviceable, and in all of these cases, pilot training was compliantwith minimum State Training Standards.

June 2009: Air France 447 - A330-200
April 2013: Lion Air JT 904 - B737-900
December 2013: Asiana AAR214 - B777
December 2014: Air Asia QZ8501 - A320
February 2015: Transasia TN235 - ATR72-600
February 2018: Saratov Airlines 6W703 - AN148
October 2018: Lion Air JT610 - B737-8 (new OEM system)
January 2019: US-Bangla Airlines BS211 - Q400
March 2019: Ethiopian ET302 - B737-8 (new OEM system)

A poorly prepared snap-back to growth could be dangerous. The longer that the industry is out of regular operations, the more risk will accumulate:

  • Aircraft will have been out of service for some time and require preparatory maintenance from out-of-practice engineering teams.
  • Pilots will be out of practice and legal currency, and require additional training.
  • ATC and other infrastructure professionals will suffer similar impacts.

Aviation Regulation and Guidance

Aviation regulation starts at the United Nations level via the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and filters down via industry Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS) to the 192 contracting States, representing most countries in the world. All these States agreed through the Chicago Convention to follow ICAO SARPS wherever possible.

However, ICAO has no legal authority over States, who publish their own aviation law individually. Many States disappointingly cling to legacy training processes, some of which have become irrelevant to modern air transport operations.

Yet there has been no lack of contemporary guidance in ICAO SARPS on pilot training:

2002: Doc 9803 Line Operations Safety Audit
2006: Doc 9868 Training (MPL) Amendment 5 - due November 2020
2009: Doc 9625 Manual of Criteria for Qualification of FSTDs (updated Ed 4 2015)
2011: Doc 9841 Manual of ATO Approval
2013: Doc 9995 Manual of Evidence Based Training (EBT)
2014: Doc 10011 Manual of Aeroplane Upset Prevention & Recovery (UPRT)

The work of the former IATA Training and Qualification initiative (ITQI), has been augmented by the IATA Pilot Training Task Force (PTTF) to provide this guidance:In parallel with ICAO publications, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has developed a rich library of training process responses to contemporary challenges, developed by International Working Groups from Industry itself (

  • IATA Guidance Material and Best Practices for Pilot Aptitude Testing
  • Guidance Material for Instructor and Evaluator Training
  • Guidance Material for Improving Flight Crew Monitoring
  • Guidance Material and Best Practices for the Implementation of UPRT
  • Evidence-Based Training Implementation Guide
  • Data Report for Evidence-Based Training
  • Guidelines Material and Best Practices for MPL Implementation
  • MPL Global Course Tracker
  • Guidance & Best Practices for Command Training (Ed 1; 2020)

The State Regulator applies local aviation law and seeks operator compliance. The responsible operator seeks flight safety compliance, often needing to exceed State regulatory compliance to achieve this, understanding from real working conditions the best practices required for safe operations. Approved Training Organisations seek compliance with State regulation and airline service contracts, but rarely with ICAO SARPS or industry best practice.

Flight Academy of the Future

Since the 2008 global recession, only limited progress has been made in tackling training deficiencies. Initiatives supported by ICAO, including those from the Royal Aeronautical Society and the International Pilot Training Consortium (now Association), made respectable headway toward updated ICAO SARPS, but the global adoption rate of updated training SARPS at State level has been poor. Now, during the current crisis, without revenues, many training suppliers and airlines are struggling to survive.

If the recovery from the C-19 crisis is ‘an extended U-Shape’, initial pilot demand will be filled from layoffs, but after a consolidation period, strong demand will return. This process could take up to three years to full recovery. During the process the training industry will have shrunk, reducing ATO capacity and exposing an opportunity for more ATOs.

The real opportunity during the C-19 crisis is not just to restore capacity, but to deliver new benchmark standards of quality and relevance in pilot training to most safely meet the needs of the expanding fleet post-crisis. A bold new Flight Academy of the Future would ruthlessly establish new levels of efficiency to deliver an enhanced syllabus based on ICAO Doc 9868; using quality instruction and training equipment precisely matched to task. The ideal ‘greenfield’ solution, designed from the ground up using the latest construction processes, would demonstrate new standards of training:

1. Improved Instructor Selection
a) The best training equipment and a poor instructor can result in poor learning, but sub-optimal training equipment with effective instruction usually produces positive results.
b) Instructors, as the most powerful single influencer in effective training, should not be selected for experience alone. Qualities such as motivation, passion, and empathy with the trainee should be sought.

2. Improved Instructor Training
Via a dedicated high-impact workshop dominated role play, used for those selected for instruction (with no previous teaching experience), and all existing instructors as a standardisation tool.
a) Illustrated with real and relevant examples of different styles.
b) Emphasising the link between effective instruction and long-term safety.
c) Emphasising the need to match styles to different trainee needs.

3. Improved Pilot Selection
a) Pilot selection in the military is generally more robust than for civil aviation. Pilot selection in the air transport industry, in the service of the travelling public, should be a more exacting process for many operators.
b) Pilots should be selected for the qualities and competencies required for a full professional piloting career in a modern airline. These competencies should be a matter of record throughout a career, starting at the point of selection.
c) Leveraging the selection phase in the pilot supply pipeline is the cheapest and best investment to in long-term future human performance.

4. Improved Training Processes
a) Driven by a contemporary Training Needs Analysis.
b) Training processes and syllabi compliant with National regulation but enhanced by the latest ICAO SARPS and IATA guidance.
c) Most effective use of IT and Virtual Reality for remote and personalised training delivery.
d) Designed to the attributes and motivations of new-generation trainees.
e) Visual demonstration of correct procedures using video grabs of emergency procedures correctly accomplished.
f) Providing maximum exposure to multi-crew settings in training.
g) Designed to demonstrate that more efficient training of quality and relevance can be assembled at lower than traditional costs.

5. Improved training tracking in simulation
a) Cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) have been in service for decades to enhance accident investigation and improved safety levels.
b) Utilising video grabs and data from live training segments in simulation (with the latest simulator debrief systems and protecting privacy with strict data retention policies) will encourage instructional improvement and standardisation.

6. Using illustrative accident data
With special emphasis on:
a) The impact of automation on pilot performance.
b) Pilot Monitoring – examples of accidents caused by failure to monitor.
c) Triggers for contemporary accidents such as LOC, and mitigation using UPRT.


Probable shrinking training resources caused by the C-19 crisis provide this strategic opportunity. Currently many governments are flooding the world with cash to save businesses and jobs, and a proportion of these funds will be sunk without returns. However, the Aviation Academy of the Future would be a strategic investment, with long-term returns, which would also strengthen longer-term safety in flight operations.

During the development phase (29 months), investment funds would be delivered to the project in stages but without return. From Month 30, training revenues (fees paid in advance) would ramp up in response to an inevitable surge in demand for both volume and quality professional pilot training.

Considerable modelling work is already done. The Aviation Academy of the Future would be a beacon to help enable future higher standards of professional pilot training.

About the Author

Captain John Bent recently completed a consultancy contract with Fiji Airways as Project Executive, to develop from greenfield the Fiji Airways Aviation Academy. This was achieved  in 33 months from site identification; with the milestones of ground-breaking in 8 months, and the start of simulator operations (two FFS) in 30 months. The project employed mostly local teams from the relatively small construction sector in Fiji with no build experience for such an exacting facility. The academy now stands proudly as the first of its kind in Fiji and the Pacific Islands. Located at Nadi International airport, which is well-connected globally, it is an example of user-centric standards of design with high standards of best practice. A future phase of this project will be the inclusion of an advanced ab initio program to serve Fiji and the Pacific Islands.

Capt. Bent has been flying and training pilots since 1961 with 13,000 hours across 28 types. Among his achievements: the first train-the-trainer programme; the first crew performance marker system; the first electronic training reporting system, CRM LOFT and automation policy development; crew training policy development, training management for the launch of Airbus fleet (A340 and A330); and the first airline mixed fleet flying. He also drove training centre design for Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong Airlines, and Fiji Airways; and lead the launch of a simulation training operation in Asia for General Electric (GE Capital).