Soft skills, and realistic settings, require in-person training. Rona Gindin interviewed the trio who moderated the Cabin Crew Training conference at the 24th World Aviation Training Summit.

Airlines are hiring cabin crew en masse, leaving those who train new hires to assess options: do we do it the old-fashioned way, in person, in a classroom? Or do we use the new virtual reality, augmented reality and simpler online options that we tried during the pandemic? With some of those high-tech options, flight attendants can pre-train at home, then fly in only for final sessions. That would involve fewer trainer hours, fewer aircraft seats that can otherwise go to paying customers, and less money on lodging costs. 

We sat down with three veteran cabin crew trainers just as WATS 2022 was getting started in Orlando, Florida, last week to get their impressions. What are you seeing at the trade show, and in the industry? we asked. Sharing their insights were Dan Duren, Learning Consultant, Southwest Airlines; Stefanie Coppedge, Director Inflight Standards and Training, Frontier Airlines; and Nicole Claus, Senior Instructor, Southwest Airlines. 

“The cabin crew group at WATS is almost back to its pre-Covid size,” says Duren, noting, “Airlines are hiring so many new people right now.”

That surge of trainees necessitates action. “We had to do a lot of pivoting,” Claus notes. “During the pandemic, we went to basic online and virtual training, and realized there are a lot of opportunities for growth and development in the training world that we hadn’t seen before, such as using VR and AR to enhance training and make it more efficient. We are now a lot more open to change than we were in the past.”

Now there’s an option though. And what to do with choices is not clear-cut. “VR has been around for a number of years and we’re still trying to figure out how best to use it,” Duren says. “Cabin crew jobs are so hands-on, we’re trying to figure out what works in VR and what doesn’t. Cabin crew can learn procedural parts of how to open a door, for instance. But how to handle passengers in certain situations such as medical emergencies? We’re still trying to figure out what works with these technologies.”

The soft skills arena may well necessitate in-person appearances. Pilots often pre-train with VR technology now, yet their jobs don’t involve dealing with passengers. “Cabin crew are a customer-facing group,” Coppedge notes as a difference. “As we move into these technologies, if I can’t have a conversation with you, how am I able to ensure that that intelligence, that is coded and written, still has a human element to it?” Coppedge asks. “You still have to get cabin crew together to perform those emergency evacuations and to do hands-on CPR,” she insists. “That has to be hands-on. Those are regulated.

“They can pass exams all day,” she says. “That doesn’t mean they are cognitively there. It doesn’t mean they have the people skills to do the job. It’s so much more than just assessments on, say, emergency equipment. It’s still an assessment of you as a person. Are you still a gracious person? Is this the right job for you?”

Tech can be a “great complement” to in-person training, Coppedge observes. “There is not enough time and there are not enough trainers, so I do think there is a perfect world for it. We need to map out what would work on a storyboard to figure out what would be effective and how we’d measure that.”

For now, there are no statistics on the effectiveness of virtual training versus hands-on, Claus reports. “We don’t have any kind of data on it. It’s all a whole brand new world.”

CPR training is a keen example. “You can send an inflatable mannequin to someone’s house with instructions, and have them go through all the motions,” Duren says. “They’ll know how to do Steps 1 through 4 on the mannequin. Yet a flight attendant needs to be put in a more realistic situation. We need the soft skills from the stress level in a more realistic situation. Sitting in your home on your living room floor is not realistic. In a cabin, you’ve got tight quarters, the stress of other passengers, and the confines of a cabin. You’ve got to get a person having a heart attack onto the floor of a small aircraft aisle. Where are you going to position yourself? Who are you going to have to help you?” All those elements at once are hard to simulate online, he says. 

Recurrent training though… now that, virtually, has promising uses for cabin crew, Claus points out. “With recurrent training, cabin crew already know the information. It’s a refresher course. So, instead of heading to a classroom, they can take virtual classes wherever they are, then come in to practice hands-on safety elements. That saves us time, energy, money and facilities.”

Quick thoughts on two other trends:

How useful are the increasingly realistic cabin simulators on the market? The consensus: excellent, yet they can’t mimic a true space, including movement, unless they also have hydraulics. And simulators with hydraulics sometimes misfunction. That shuts down training. 

What about flight schools that do the cabin crew training for airlines? They’re great at teaching some critical skills, but may struggle to know each airline’s individual procedures, as well as each airline’s unique acronyms.

Chances are, cabin crew training, for new hires and existing staff, will be a mix of tech-related and in-person in coming years. Details? Stay tuned.