At WATS 2023, cabin crew trainers honored staff emotions while delving into data to help trainees learn.

What a difference a year makes. In spring 2022, cabin crew leaders focused largely on three topics: how to train a nearly, or entirely, new set of flight attendants; how to handle unruly passengers who were unsettled by mandatory masking; and, as a result of the first two, “the soft stuff” — how to weave kindness and respect into crew management.

One eventful year later, the conversation during Halldale’s annual WATS conference had evolved notably. As they met in Orlando for the 2023 World Aviation Training Summit, speakers and participants again revisited the soft stuff, yet with sophisticated corporate twists. They also talked about data. Specifically, they examined the challenges and rewards of switching flight crew training to a data-based approach that has had promising early results.

Without getting too deeply into the numerous acronyms — among them AQP, SQP, SMS and CBTA — here are key highlights.

Data, Data Everywhere

Airlines have had some success switching pilot training to competency-based training and assessment, or using it as a supplement. Now some are turning to CBTA for cabin crews too.

While traditional training systems involve a tick-the-box method of tasks to be done correctly, CBTA involves using historical group data to see specifically what training works and what doesn’t — and then changing things accordingly. That allows trainees to learn better and to retain knowledge longer. It’s also a road toward changing up recurrent training so long-timers don’t repeat the same exercises year after year. The biggest obstacle is that each airline needs to develop its own CBTA program tailored to its own aircraft and priorities.

An Ally: The FAA

The Federal Aviation Administration has seen promising results from CBTA-based training programs and invites airlines to adopt them for cabin crew training. Each airline needs to set up its own system, which is no small feat as it involves hiring data analysts, among other new staff positions. “The FAA encourages you to innovate,” said Vin Parker of Republic Airways, which uses the Advanced Qualification Program (AQP) as the “framework” and CBTA as the method.

“The FAA walks hand in hand with you down the road,” adds Tanya Phipps, an FAA aviation safety inspector. “We can’t write the program for you, but we will tell you what did and didn’t work well… so you don’t waste your time and go down the wrong road. We are a resource, and we want you to succeed.”

While it will likely be a challenge to get each airline to approve funding, and to get existing crew members to be open-minded at first, the biggest barrier might be fear of starting from scratch. An FAA representative will check in regularly to keep creators from veering too far off track. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t at other airlines, and are happy to veer each airline toward success using that knowledge along the way.

Benefits of CBTA-Based Training

Here are some of the positives that speakers shared. 

  • Deeper dives. You can close and arm an aircraft door correctly during training. Great. But what if, in real life, a passenger sneezes at that time, distracting the flight attendant, who then forgets to arm the door? Then the assessor finds out and has to label the reason for the gap. Is it procedural? Communication? Situational awareness? CBTA might help trainers figure out where training gaps are. Then they can focus on those areas, spending time more wisely. And it addresses the reality that flight attendants multitask frequently, increasing the margin for error.
  • Divvy up the steps. If data shows that flight attendants frequently fail at completing a five-step task in the required 60 seconds, trainers can rework the tasks. For example, they can break it into two separate tasks, making each easier for trainees to remember.
  • Teach old employees new tricks. Repeatedly, those who’ve used CBTA report that senior flight attendants discovered that they “didn’t know what they didn’t know,” and were ultimately happy to increase their knowledge base and skill sets.


First Steps Toward First Aid

First aid is another example of how flexible training can make flight attendants better at their jobs. For example, CPR can be taught with a dummy on the floor of a training room. However, in real life, a flight attendant will need, maybe, to move a cart, find a spot in a narrow aisle to place the passenger on the floor, do chest compressions, run to get lifesaving equipment, decide whether to call a medical alert company — all while under stress. Scenario-based training would be valuable in helping trainees run through such situations, the speakers said.

The Human Side

Passenger aggression may be calming down some, but many flight attendants are still burnt out from the numerous challenges of working during the heart of the Covid pandemic. In addition to dealing with unruly passengers and the anxiety of possibly losing their jobs, flight crew returned to flights with limited food service options, closed hotel fitness centers, and, back at home, isolation from family and friends. That affected mental health as well as physical health.

Flight attendants are calling mental health hotlines in large numbers, added Capt. Reyne O’Shaughnessy, a former pilot who is creating health and wellness initiatives for the industry, building a business around addressing pilot and flight crew mental and physical health. “The future of aviation training demands a culture change, education, and a framework for psychological safety,” she said. Her program will, among other elements, encouraging “mindfulness” initiatives that involve positive psychology and diaphragmatic breathing. They have been proven as helpful,  not “woo-woo,” she emphasized.

Now that the World Health Organization has declared the pandemic officially over, and airline training leaders are aggressively researching more effective training methods such as those involving CBTA, expect more change in the aviation training industry.