The airline industry has been more severely damaged by the pandemic than any event since WW2, and most surviving airlines have few resources to spare. But there remains a widespread belief amongst experienced training SMEs that a route-and-branch review of professional pilot ab initio training is needed, relevant to current and future operational demands. Captain John Bent describes the opportunity and the imperative.

“The current regulatory framework is inadequate to contain a falling experience base. Influencing that dynamic is the clear goal conflict presented by cash-strapped airlines and the need for training investment. Many reputable airlines are not addressing these influencing factors to an adequate level and thus we are drifting. So I ask the question: “At what point do the regulators step in and say your investment is not enough, and you must stop operating?” The success of an airline going forward will be determined by the quality of the conversations it has on these investment issues and its ability to maintain adequate adaptive capacity amongst its pilots.” - a respected airline training manager.

The Birth of Project X

Project X germinated during the pandemic, combining knowledge accumulated over multiple aviation piloting careers to deliver more relevant primary pilot training in support of airlines post pandemic.

The publication of the article, ‘Opportunity in Crisis: The Flight Academy of the Future’, in The Journal of Civil Aviation Training (CAT), in early 2020 triggered investor interest from Canada and the ‘New Horizon Flight Academy’ initiative was born. Seven months of work with subject matter experts produced a new syllabus and the interest of 16 potential investors.

But by early 2021, as the pandemic deepened and investor appetite for aviation diminished, the project was shelved as no investor subscriptions could be closed. 

Some of the work already undertaken morphed into Project X: a placeholder for ongoing work involving three SMEs from New Horizon. 

Airline Recovery Projections

In May 2022, during a surge of air travel demand (especially in the US), IATA now projects a full recovery of passenger rates to 2019 levels by 2023, one year earlier than previously projected. But such projections assume the availability of pilots and training to meet the demand. In the US we are already seeing a high percentage of unmanned airliners grounded and curtailed airline services due to the diminished reservoir of pilots and training resources available. What happens in US aviation often repeats elsewhere.

Add to this the high probability of a pandemic spending-driven recession in the next few years and the 2023 recovery projection could be rather hopeful. It remains probable that downtime still remains to initiate projects such as Project X to help fill the training quality and capacity gaps post-pandemic. But prompt action is certainly needed to meet the challenge, as the mixture of shrinking experience levels and training resources is not a good one for future safety.

The Missing Piece: Funding

Project X proposes the combination of a special breed of motivated instructors and available new training technologies applied to competency-based multi-crew training to deliver more competent pilots in less time and cost while also protecting future safety margins wherever these new programs are used.

Investor commitment to launch three new-generation ATOs (Approved Training Organisations) is all that is needed to establish and demonstrate these improvements to State Regulators and encourage ICAO to drive broad change in the ab initio training industry. 

An estimated US$10 million investment commitment (the value of one widebody airliner jet engine) should enable the launch in series of three new-gen professional pilot (ab initio) training units in optimal locations. This is a relatively small investment in relation to the potential longer-term safety dividend. And as a shorter-smarter programme, more rewarding returns should come to investors in this space on the order of 20% IRR or more. As there were over 2,000 ATOs around the world delivering professional pilot ab initio training pre-pandemic; the scale of this opportunity is large.

The X Team

Project X is led by experienced professional pilots with a combined 100 years in aviation, 50,000 flight hours in two air forces and 10 airlines – all with simulation, training, examining, and airline management experience. All are aware that the pandemic has grounded many highly experienced trainers whose services could strengthen Project X once investment is secured.

So subject to investment, the Project X team is committed to use their experience to help regulators mandate more relevant training to deliver more competent pilots in less time and cost, helping the industry to emerge safely from the pandemic amidst a plethora of threats.

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