Training to restarting operations at an airline requires collaboration of pilots, cabin crew, trainers, regulators and others. CAT Europe Editor Chris Long, FRAeS, relates the story of how Emirates is meeting the challenges.

The world reeled at the speed and depth of the onset of Covid-19. As we all know, the aviation industry was one of the hardest-hit sectors, and the reaction to it also needed to be both rapid and profound.

Tim Clark, President of Emirates airline, made it clear that despite the challenges which the pandemic brought, the airline will not compromise on the safety of passengers or crew.

Emirates is in a unique situation as the largest operator of exclusively wide-body fleets, and in theory, could have taken the biggest hit. But, as Captain Martin Mahoney, Emirates SVP Flight Training says, whilst practically all the A380 fleet was initially grounded, the B777 fleet continued to operate – the cargo version was supported by a number of passenger versions which were either partially converted to a freighter fit, or which, without modification, were used to transport freight in the cabin. Consequently, the training in support of that ongoing operation needed to be re-jigged. The immediate reaction to the local lockdown in Dubai led to the closing of the three Emirates Training Colleges on 18 March; they were not to reopen until 1 June.

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That did not mean that all training ground to a halt – there was plenty that could be done in the meantime. Mahoney’s team saw this as an opportunity to accelerate the adoption of enriched online training, to complete the preparation for full EBT implementation and to prepare for the reopening of FFS training, albeit with the new post-Covid norms in place. Absolutely key to this was the close cooperation and support of the GCAA, which oversaw the adoption of revised training approaches which were formulated only after a very robust risk assessment process. This meant that when the Emirates Colleges booted up again, they could move straight into effective training to support both flight deck and cabin crews. The start point inevitably, was to ensure that the 450+ trainers were brought up to speed first.

Re-Thinking Essential Training

The pilots’ six-month recurrent training cycle changes in February and August; with the close down in March, there was time to re-plan for the start of the August phase. First, the backlog of recurrent training, built up over the 2½ month closure, needed to be addressed. In fact, the extent of the backlog was not as great as might have been expected. With the use of existing online programmes, the theoretical knowledge elements could be completed as before.

The potentially challenging standardisation of trainers could also be carried out online through the use of Microsoft Teams – a tool which Mahoney says has come into its own over the whole process. The standards managers were able to use Teams to conduct effective standardisation training with up to 30 trainers at a time and still generate useful interaction and engagement with that group in a virtual classroom environment. There was a short period of adaptation to make best use of that system – for instance, the signaling of the wish to speak by raising a hand proved to be indispensable to the smooth flow of conversation/interaction.

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The downtime was also used to complete the SEP training online for all pilots and cabin crew prior to the beginning of September (the date when the new SEP phase started). Having completed the online training, the crews’ expiry datums were reverted to their original dates, so that the training programmes returned to normal as quickly as possible without making use of the Safety Decision issued by the regulatory authority granting extensions on all expiry dates prior to 31 July. This would lead to a sustainable flow rate of such courses in the longer term.

The pause in training was a window to refine the planned implementation of a full evidence-based training programme which had originally been set up for 1 August (and which has now started a two-year trial). The exchange and discussion of the necessary documentation for that was conducted through the use of Teams, initially with the management group, but then extended to include the instructors.

One fascinating use of Teams is in the FFS. During the closure of the training college, a newly developed single-day recurrent training and checking programme with FFS required regulatory approval. Early Covid separation rules meant the GCAA inspector was unable to be present at the session. Captain Steve Mercer, Standards Training Manager, highlighted that Emirates was one of the first, if not the first, to use Teams in the FFS, to allow a remote licence proficiency check by a GCAA inspector who oversaw the live session from his office. This featured three iPads situated in the cockpit and running Teams to provide live, interactive feedback with the crew and the inspector. This demonstrated the continued support of the GCAA and its willingness to embrace new and innovative ideas.

SEP training for the cabin crew also need to be modified. The annual SEP training cycle runs from September to September. Crew who had not conducted their recurrent SEP training prior to the college closure in March conducted their SEP training online, following a herculean effort by the SEP trainers and the Emirates Learning and Talent Department to develop and have approved online SEP modules. The invigilated exam was conducted in the college from June onwards with stringent social distancing restrictions in place. From 1 September, SEP training reverted to a two-day course for the cabin crew, the first day being online, the second in the college where the crew are exposed to hands-on training for door operation/fire/emergency evacuation, but with smaller groups and Covid protection (masks at all times, distancing, etc). All equipment is cleaned after each session and all devices and classrooms are deep-cleaned every evening. This pattern is supported by an intense track and testing system to track contact points should this prove necessary.

Recency Training for Trainers

Now that a plan had been formed, it needed to address the regulatory imperatives. As Mahoney pointed out, the existing pilot recency requirement of only three takeoffs and landings within the past 90 days were in any case predicated on only one of the pilots needing those minimums, not with both being on that level. He believed that more training was required. A new form of recency training needed to be devised and put in place for those pilots who had not flown for up to three months with many not expected to return to the air for much longer.

With the Boeing fleet being more widely utilised, the focus of attention was on the A380, so first up were a number of senior A380 TREs. Not only did they have to complete all the ground and FFS based training, but in the light of President Clark’s expectations, each of them had to complete a circuit detail at Dubai World Central International airfield, to the south of Dubai. Circuit training on an empty A380 stamped the determination to set the tone and the standards of the retraining.

Motivation to Fly Again

It is one thing to meticulously formulate a plan; it can be quite another to implement it. In this case, the unknown was just how much of the skill sets had been lost by the crews, and just how effective the new training paradigms would be in bringing those back up to speed. In practice the task was made much more straightforward by the strong motivation of returning flight deck and cabin crews, who had vigorously embraced the online preparation and self-study prior to the restart of formal training. A major tool in that preparation was the comprehensive library of training videos.

From the flight deck perspective, it was apparent that the crews were themselves apprehensive about potential loss of competency and had done a lot of work on basic technical knowledge. A major concern for all was that handling skills might have been eroded. The reality was much more reassuring – not only had basic pilot skills not deteriorated significantly after the enforced grounding but the only observation, including feedback from other airlines, was that normal SOPs proved to be the biggest challenge, so crews were taking even greater care not to make mistakes, most actions were slightly slower, pre-flight checks in the cockpit took a little more time. That is not a real problem; in fact, the instructors were guided to be pragmatic in their approach. Some of the detail of SOPs were missing – operation in an ice-pellet environment, or the precise validity times for de-icing fluid at varying temperatures did not always immediately come to mind, but those issues are swiftly resolved by targeted online study and testing. The operation had to be safe, but if things were a little slower, then so be it; in fact, it was positively encouraged by the trainers. Providing that the basics were safe and accurate, then the finesse would build once routine and regular operations were up and running.

Insufficiency Begets Innovation

Given the perception that the regulatory minimums were insufficient to cope with the enforced grounding, Emirates started looking at how best they could mitigate the operational risks in bringing pilots back on line in the middle of a Northern Hemisphere winter. Creating a recency programme which exceeded regulations meant GCAA approval was not required; however, the authority was kept informed every step of the way in the Resumption of Flying Document which Emirates was required to complete. Before their eventual release to line operations, the crews would fly with a TRE/TRI on a normal line flight.

For long-term grounded pilots, their recency training programme comprises a manual handling session followed by the revalidation of their licence. After this the pilot conducts a normal line flight, albeit in the sim to get him used to normal procedures. If the absence period is greater than 180 days, the commanders are given an intervention simulator session where the trainer in the other operating seat conducts in-seat instruction and sets up scenarios which may or may not require the commander to take over control at critical stages of a flight.

Again, the risk facing every airline today is to bring a constituted crew back to line operations following an extended absence from the cockpit. Intervention training gives the commanders the confidence to practice skills in the benign environment of the simulator. Errors in operating which diverge from the flight plan/operation are introduced in a non-hostile way to induce more effective pilot monitoring skills and thus the PNF is guided to the robust and effective monitoring of non-standard/deviation from SOPs.

Having completed this series of training sessions the pilots are then in the EBT recurrent training programme. This programme means the pilots conduct sessions 1 and 2 of the EBT module and then three months later are rostered into the sim for their manual handling/UPRT sim. In normal operations, an Emirates pilot is in the sim every 90 days, but these are not normal times so for those pilots who are long-term grounded they are rostered into the sim for additional recency sessions in between EBT and UPRT. This additional recency training means EK pilots who cannot stay aircraft-recent due to the reduced commercial programme are in the sim every 45 days, and every time they are in the sim they conduct three takeoffs and landings to update their legal recency expiry date. This pattern helps to maintain both currency and importantly, confidence.

All concerned were in uncharted waters when planning how to get so many crews back to operations in a tight timeframe after a prolonged and complete break. The time working from home was far from wasted – plans to move further into the digital world were accelerated (witness the use of Teams) and thorough preparation for full EBT implementation were detailed. Equally important, the identifying of potential issues of competency were intensely debated both within the airline and with the GCAA. The solutions were agreed, and when these began to be implemented it was rapidly discovered that they were very effective and well-received by the crews.

The continuing professionalism and motivation of the flight deck and cabin crews, manifested in thorough online preparation, provided a solid foundation for the modified training, and resulted in a smooth transition to a safe and confident operation. The detailed adoption of Covid-related safety measures for both crew and passengers imbued the crews with the confidence that there was minimal risk of contracting the virus in their work environment. This starts at the home base in Dubai, where strict national adoption of masking/distancing and cleaning procedures make it a good Covid-secure environment. More flights are double crewed to facilitate turnarounds, and thus reduce stopovers in countries which are experiencing spikes in infection rates. Where stopovers are necessary, then local isolation (stay in your room) and other actions again reduce exposure to a minimum.

Long-Term Absence Lessons

The major lesson for Mahoney is that the regulatory pilot recency requirements fall short of what is needed in mitigating the risks when both operating pilots are returning from long-term absence from the cockpit. He is adamant that a global approach to review and beef-up both recency requirements and the training offered to address them are an imperative. In informal discussions with other operators there is general agreement that this should happen, and that at the highest levels with the involvement of ICAO/IATA/NAAs/airlines. There should be intensive work to produce solid guidelines to help those airlines who may not have the resources to devise their own solutions. That is the pathway to relevant and effective recurrent training and global standardisation in this time of unprecedented volatility in our industry – a healthy outcome for both the airlines and the traveling public.