Bite-size info bits, realistic training equipment and self-defense lessons. Rona Gindin explores some growing parts of cabin crew training.

750 for Eurowings! 400 at Virgin Atlantic! 1,100 at easyJet! Headlines around the world shout out demand for cabin crew employees as airlines fill thousands of jobs. 

Once the candidates are hired, they learn to serve beverages, put out fires … and handle, for example, the disruptive gentleman yelling in 14C. Now more than ever, aviation recruits must become adept at diffusing out-of-control customers. It’s crucial. Otherwise, a situation can escalate so badly that a flight attendant needs to bop the troublemaker over the head with a coffee pot. #truestory #notfunny

How? It takes a fresh approach combined with tried-and-true classic techniques.

Who’s Getting Trained?

Airlines are filling loads of cabin crew spots after pandemic-era furloughs and layoffs. They’re also looking toward the massive growth they’d expected before travel shut down. In all, commercial aviation will hire up to 886,000 cabin crew members over the next 20 years, according to a Boeing forecast, ‘Pilot and Technician Outlook 2021-2040’. Add in refresher courses for employees returning to their airline or another after a lapse, plus standard annual recurrent training, and the need for training sessions spikes yet more. “Regulatory requirements, attrition replacement and business model differentiation will drive strong cabin crew demand across the industry,” the forecast concludes. 

As a result, airlines are busy-busy with two related efforts: 

1. Recruiting and training unprecedented numbers of cabin crew employees, and 

2. Synthesizing newish technologies such as app-based learning, virtual classrooms and realistic simulators with traditional “practical” cabin crew training methods.

Here’s what stands out:

The ABCs of De-escalation

Yelling, drinking, sparring about politics, refusing to buckle up, attempting to enter the flight deck… passengers on commercial airline flights have acted unruly throughout the decades. During the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, though, the numbers surged – up to nearly 6,000 flyers were reported as unruly in 2021, according to the US Federal Aviation Administration. Incidents often started when passengers refused to wear face masks, then got nasty when flight attendants insisted. Mask mandates are less common now, yet seat belt resistance, inebriation, mental illness and even potential attempted hijacking cause behavior that ranges from unpleasant to unsafe. 

Enter de-escalation training. Some airlines have increased their focus on teaching cabin crew how to calm passengers down. In addition, the FAA published best-practice guidelines at year-end 2021 explaining the “common elements of de-escalation” as “(1) the attempt to reduce the use of heightened, disproportionate, or harsh responses to perceived conflict, and (2) the attempt to reduce heightened negative emotions present in the situation.”

Airlines sometimes bring in outside experts to teach de-escalation skills in depth. The goal: influence behavioral change. A class of cabin crew members listen to a speaker, watch videos, analyze what they saw in the videos, then role play in de-escalation workshops by Empower Communications Group of Boston. The founders are two police officers (one retired) who share communication strategies that law enforcement officers use on the job. Their techniques are modeled on law enforcement de-escalation best practices.

Flight attendants are taught subjects such as how to assess emotions, for example, anger versus rage. Then they’re shown how to de-escalate. Suggestions include establishing a rapport with the passenger, says Empower co-owner Jose Alfonso, and demonstrating empathy by saying you feel similarly. Use statements like, “I don’t want to wear my mask [or seat belt] either, but government regulations require it.” 

Body language matters. Alfonso suggests approaching challenging passengers who haven’t become physically violent by standing or crouching face-forward, with hands in front of the body in a non-threatening manner for protection if needed. “You should never cross your arms during the de-escalation process because it can be perceived as if you are not interested in what is being said and may escalate the situation,” he says. When passengers remain belligerent, flight attendants might invite a coworker to step in, because sometimes the newcomer’s personality won’t clash in the same way. Also: explain calmly that, upon landing, the passenger will be greeted by law enforcement officers.

Assess if there might be a medical reason for the unruly behavior. “A person with low blood sugar can mimic appearing intoxicated,” notes Richard P. Gomez, Vice President of Aviation Products and Management for Phoenix-based MedAire, which runs training modules and has doctors on-call for inflight cabin crew. Cabin crew are instructed to inquire when the passenger last ate, and also to ask a traveling companion if this behavior is unusual, if there is an allergy history, and/or if the person is on medication. This is crucial, he emphasizes, in case the passenger needs medical treatment.

Them’s Fightin’ Words

Now and then altercations get physical. That’s when the experts defer to each airline’s written policy. Most airlines include short bits on self-defense in their annual recurrent training, says Michael M. Massoni, 1st Vice President and Operational Safety Chairperson of TWU, The Union of Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants. 

He points out that more intense training is available in the United States by the Transportation Services Administration. Since 2004, the TSA has invited cabin crew to its Crew Member Self Defense Training (CMSDT) program. Participation is free and open to all crew members, but airlines don’t always pay for their cabin crew to attend, Massoni notes. “Right now it’s a voluntary program, but we believe there will be a big push to make it mandatory and we support that.”

CMSDT is a four-hour program run by certified instructors and held around the country. “CMSDT teaches the basic fundamentals of self-defense, which include the stance and movement techniques, target areas of the body, personal and field expedient weapons that can be used, power-generating techniques, and mentally preparing yourself for a confrontation (mindset),” says Max Weitzner, a TSA spokesperson. “The training also includes various upper and lower body strikes, how to protect yourself from strikes being thrown by using blocks and cover techniques, and also how to defend yourself against any hand-held weapons that could be brought aboard the aircraft.” 

More than half of the 21,000 people who attended CMSDT since its inception did so during the last six years, Weitzner notes – and that’s with a 16-month pause early in the pandemic. 

Blended Tech Teaching Methods

Initial and recurrent cabin crew members increased their studying, and pre-testing, on assorted personal electronic devices during the pandemic. In-person training was nearly impossible, after all. Now handhelds join desktops and in-person gatherings in a permanent mixy-matchy blend of ways to study skills. The programs keep getting better. For example, the Calgary-based Inflight Institute, which delivers online content allowing trainees to learn skills virtually before attending in-person training sessions, recently added full-motion videos showing 360-degree views inside a cabin interior. Trainees can watch an evacuation including passengers, simulated smoke, and cabin crew operating doors and giving commands. 

At Air France, Franck Euzet, Cabin Crew Safety Training & Safety Pro Level Manager, said an optional app made a big difference. Using neuroscience, artificial intelligence and big data, the company designed an app on which cabin crew members can study for new or recurrent training assessments. They learn in chunks, repeat lessons often – especially those they fail – and ultimately retain information longer because of this assessment-based microlearning method. They use the app on their own time, on their own devices, and receive reminders when it’s time to repeat a lesson. Those notifications are based on data about when crucial knowledge declines. The pattern is different depending on how each person performs, making this an adaptive learning tool.

Virtual reality is increasing its presence in the cabin crew training arena. Millennial and Gen Z recruits are already comfortable with VR technology, notes Mark Rivers, Head of Training for the EDM Aviation Training Academy in Manchester, UK. His company has seen a large uptick in VR interest by airlines in recent months. With VR, trainees wearing special goggles can view realistic images of an aircraft’s interior and perform tasks using either controllers or haptic gloves. “They can see where pieces of equipment are, or go through a decompression scenario,” Rivers explains. VR offers a less expensive way to try and re-try tasks than practical training does, he emphasizes. “The only way cabin crew learn is by getting it wrong when actually doing something and learning from the mistakes.”

Simulation Gets More Realistic

Once trainees show up in person, they have access to cabin trainers with more realistic simulation effects than ever, says Hajati Treacher-Moley, Head of Cabin Crew Training for the UK’s Skyborne Aviation. “Now, you sign in on an iPad and you can see the take-off through the window. The aircraft actually moves and has engine noises. It might sway left to right on a big suspension. Big wheels move in,” she says. The aircraft are shells of actual planes held in large warehouses, and the fire training elements are especially convincing. “We can train with fire extinguishers filled with hot air. We see pretend fires, heavy black smoke or white smoke. We can choose where the fire starts – behind panels, in the toilet waste paper bin or in the oven. This helps drill the lessons of safety drills into the flight attendants. It’s as close as possible to hands-on training.” 

Manufacturers are stepping up their replicas to provide realistic hands-on experiences. In response to airline requests for fire simulators better than, essentially, a backyard barbecue grill, Flame Aviation in The Netherlands began making dedicated fire trainers in 2015.

The company’s V9000 Commander, housed in a trailer cabin such as those used as portable offices, lets students practice learning or reviewing fire-training basics. Some sit on a bench in a tribune to watch their peers through a transparent wall. On the other side is a replica of an aircraft with true dimensions, including a galley, rows of seats, overhead storage compartments and a lavatory in the rear.

In the simulator, fires might break out in a laptop or portable power bank, or in an oven, lavatory trash can or overhead bin. Trainees assess the kind of fire, then take appropriate actions: pull circuit breakers? Use a fire extinguisher (which works for only 10 to 15 seconds, as in a real aircraft), water or both? Are gloves and personal breathing equipment necessary? Who should grab the extinguisher or water and put out the fire, who should stand by with a spare, and who should communicate with the flight deck, and what should that person say?

The number of inflight fires is on the rise because personal electronic devices (PEDs) are causing most of them, says Flame Founder and CEO Robin Pijnaker. “The lithium-ion batteries in smartphones, tablets, laptops and power banks are the biggest reasons for fire on aircraft,” Pijnaker explains. “And most passengers carry four of those items.” He reports increased orders for trainers by North American airlines even though authorities don’t require such detailed fire training. 

See Them at WATS 2022

Mark Rivers, EDM Aviation Training Academy; Juliana Oliveira, Vueling; Robin Pijnaker, Flame Aviation; Jose Alfonso and Darryl Owens, Empower Communications Group; and Richard Gomez, MedAire will be speaking in the WATS Cabin Crew Training Conference, 3-5 May 2022, in Orlando, Florida. The Cabin Crew program is led by Dan Duren – Projects & Continuous Improvement, Southwest Airlines University, and Stefanie Coppedge – Director, Inflight Standards & Training, Frontier Airlines. 

Outsourcing and Virtual Teaching

It’s expensive to buy trainers, hire instructors, fly in cabin crew and house them for training, so some airlines are outsourcing initial and/or recurrent training to facilities built just for that purpose. In the UK, EDM has been making trainers for 50 years yet just opened its 20,000-square-foot Aviation Training Academy in 2021. “We can provide this training for cheaper than most airlines can in-house, so I believe there will be a shift toward using third parties,” Rivers says, explaining that his company’s “one-stop-shop” now takes on the training for some airlines instead of selling the airlines EDM’s door and slide trainers, and similar products. “Over five days of initial training, 70 percent is done practically,” he adds. Trainees put out real fires, are surrounded by real smoke, open real doors and even slide five to six meters out of the cabin. 

No one will ever say cabin crew can learn how to perform CPR in an online classroom better than in person. Yet trainers are introducing clever ways to make off-site training more effective. “E-learning reduces time in the classroom,” says Gomez of MedAire, which trains hundreds of cabin crew and pilots every month from over 130 different aviation operators around the world. He says that at-home options with adapted teaching methods are still effective.

In six short weeks early in the pandemic, MedAire came up with an online version of its eight-hour first aid course that includes all the equipment needed: an inflatable mannequin, a CPR monitor to wear on the wrist, an SAM splint and a medical kit content card. With the kit, trainees can still learn, say, specifically what to do when a doctor says to get the nitroglycerin out of the pouch, including how to wear the gloves and how to administer the product.

How to Better Retain Knowledge

Aircraft are safest when cabin crew not only pass tests, but retain deep knowledge about safety issues. In Europe, competency-based training and assessments, or CBTAs, are being implemented widely. 

“It’s not necessarily a big thing in North America yet, but it certainly is in Europe,” says Ivan Noel, President of the Inflight Institute. Pilots have benefited from CBTA techniques for a few years, he says, and now airlines are upping their usage for flight attendants.

With competency-based training, software congregates data. The goal is to crunch numbers to assess which of several “core competency” areas might be responsible for low scores in a certain area. For example, if students uniformly score poorly during performance tests for putting out an in-flight fire, CBTAs might discover why. Using comments by those who assess the trainees, CBTA might discover that testees struggle with knowledge, communication or workload management. The other options are adherence to procedures, problem solving/decision making, situational awareness, and leadership and teamwork. Airlines will use the results to refine training procedures, making them more effective. 

It’s no secret that it’s less expensive to retain existing personnel than recruit and train new staff members. For that reason, one cabin crew instructor encourages bringing more of a human element into classroom and virtual training. “Cabin crew can feel burnt out, and feel they’re not being heard,” says Juliana Oliveira, a Netherlands-based senior flight attendant and cabin crew instructor with Vueling Airlines of Spain.

One way to “humanize” the recurrent training, she suggests, is to have crew members do some of the peer training. “Maybe have one person set up the room, or teach a certain topic,” she says. “That would motivate them and make them feel that they matter.” For initial training, she proposes that experienced flight attendants share their experiences and provide tips on how to survive the first week.

Touch and technology, in-person and online, in realistic trainers as well as virtual worlds... As the aviation industry staffs up again, all options are in play.