Marco Santana is the Founder of Orlando Tech News and former business reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. Halldale invited him to WATS to offer his impressions as a first-time attendee of the world’s largest civil aviation training event.

Industry leaders at the World Aviation Training Summit (WATS) had a sometimes brutally honest message for the industry about the future of its workforce. “We are not sure where the future pilots are coming from in the US,” said Brad Lambert, Vice President of Flight Operations, Frontier Airlines. 

While the workforce certainly presents a challenge – as it does right now in many tech-heavy industries – the question might have been answered, at least in part, during the four-day WATS conference at Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando, Florida.

Lambert was part of a panel of executives from some of the largest airlines in the industry, including United and JetBlue.

Lambert also offered some encouragement: “The industry will adapt, and we will meet the challenges.”

Where Airline Training is Headed

The show floor provided a small glimpse at how those challenges might be met, along with where the future of airline training is headed – or, perhaps in some cases, already stands.

First, the short answer: high tech.

Virtual reality, simulation and eye-tracking technology are expected to play critical roles in training the next generation of the aviation industry’s workforce.

That comes as no surprise, of course.

Few industries will move into the next several years without technology playing a major role. 

But the industry faces added roadblocks, including the sometimes-glacial pace of regulatory approval and then adoption of innovative solutions.

However, a bright spot is that aviation appears to be trying to change that perception.

In an exhibit hall that included behemoth companies like Boeing, Airbus and CAE, representatives in several booths handed out headsets that allowed visitors – that is, potential partners or customers – a chance to try out virtual reality.

The expansion of VR in aviation training has been swift after its acceptance, some said.

“It represents stark growth,” said StaplesVR CEO Aliesha Staples. Staples said that her company was the only one at her first show in 2017 to be working with virtual reality. “We even felt a little hostility toward it at the time, actually,” Staples said.

This year, about 10 had virtual reality involved in their booths in some form.

Aviation appears to have accepted that technology, a factor that could help alleviate difficulties when it comes to hiring.

The obvious reason, of course, is that the younger workforce does not know a world in which technology has not been embedded in their lives. Industries of most technology sectors have turned to simulation and high tech to train their workforce.

AR is Maturing

One company at the summit has another tool at its disposal for its aviation training products: augmented reality. Cole Engineering Services had steady traffic to try out its AR glasses, which put a user right into an environment where they worked through a training module.

It was just a glimpse of Cole’s Commercial Aviation Augmented Reality Toolkit (CAART), which the company rolled out about four years ago as a relatively new effort for the legacy company. 

The timing for the training program ended up ideal. “It’s maturing to the point where all of the ideas we have had are coming to fruition,” said Cole’s Dan Diehl, Senior Software Engineer, who noted that their roll out of CAART in 2019 had drawn some initial interest. “We are finding some success.”

For years, the aviation industry has had a problem that many other industries have struggled with. Although technology seems to advance faster than some can keep up with, it was still slow to adopt.

The poster child of that inability to adapt and, as a result, be left behind, has always been Blockbuster Video, of course, which found itself essentially out of business after Netflix’s emergence. 

With a global commercial aircraft market size of $128.1 billion, the money is certainly there to build toward a tech-heavy future. 

Putting on the Gloves

Airbus, for example, was a popular stopping point for those in attendance, primarily because of its virtual cockpit training module. The trainer put those who stopped by through a scripted procedure of pre-flight preparations in VR. The experience was bolstered by gloves that included haptics-based feedback, meaning you could “feel” the knobs and switches as you flipped them virtually. That function, which has been a part of the trainer for several years, adds to the immersion of the system.

Larry Griffin, Delta Airlines’ A350 training lead, attended the show and took Airbus’ VR-training product for a spin. “It’s definitely the future of training,” said Griffin, who said he learned on flat, touchscreen devices but enjoyed his experience in VR.

Time to Innovate

The seminars also dove into innovation, with several focusing on “next generation,” “innovative” and “future” advancements.

easyJet Chief Training Capt. Mark Farquhar, for example, said he has urged his team of nearly 200 at easyJet to think about how the company can continue to evolve its training solutions. “We are making time to innovate,” he said in his seminar, which focused on how his team pushed through the pandemic.

As airline training faces its struggles with finding and retaining talent, some companies have their own obstacles, including the difficulty in convincing a legacy industry to change its ways.

Smart Eye, a Sweden-based company that produces eye-tracking software, has only recently turned to airline training centers for its software. Typically, the company works with schools or automotive companies.

Eye-tracking technology is not new, of course. Smart Eye, for instance, has been around since 1999. But its recent turn to the airline training industry indicates the company’s belief that airlines have started to realize that training the next generation of pilots and, really, the entire industry, will be a high-tech endeavor.

An event like WATS ensures everyone is on the same page as technology rapidly evolves, and that’s important in this safety-critical industry.