Big Data - the Etihad Airways Approach

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The national airline of the United Arab Emirates, Etihad Airways, has seen its base at Abu Dhabi expand rapidly since the airline was created in 2003. Chris Long visits this growing airline, and reports on their training approach.

This year Etihad has seen the delivery of its 100th aircraft, with additional aircraft arriving throughout 2014, to include the first of 10 A380s, and the first of 71 B787s is due in November 2014. This fleet build up will continue over the next 10 years, during which time 62 A350s and a further 26 B777s will arrive, with 35 more A320 family to cover the shorter-range network.

The importance accorded to training is clearly illustrated by the role that Captain Chris Ranganathan, Vice President Operations Training, is charged with at Etihad Airways. Training is not regarded as a secondary discipline, but as a task that plays an important role in ensuring day to day safe and efficient operations.

A major consequence of this safety culture is the potential to pool data between the operations and training worlds. Ranganathan says that they have made significant progress in combining operational and training data to better track actual performance and thus devise improved training to respond to present and future operating demands. This project is Work in Progress, but in order for the data to be meaningful, all critical paths and measuring points need to be aligned across the entire range of flight-derived data and training performance criteria. That is no easy task, as it is also essential that all those involved in data entry work to the same criteria; this requires a considerable amount of training too.

The sort of information which is being closely looked at and shared between line operation and simulator-based training scenarios are rate-of-rotation or flare, use of rudder, crosswind landings, Rejected Take Off actions, and so on. The accumulated data from both sources will lead to a better understanding of exactly what training is required, which falls neatly into the integration of Evidence Based Training, which in turn is coupled with Competency standards. Not only will the average performance be established, but individuals will be able to see and understand where their own performance is relative to the fleet and the acceptable norm. Consequently, appropriate and targeted training can then be planned to rectify any shortcomings, with a view to improving individual, and overall performance and safety.

Importance of the InstructorThe data-based requirement is only one part of the equation. For training to be effective, the instructional team needs to understand and be able to operate with those parameters. Here is another area where Etihad are making some major innovations. Not least of these is their Beta testing of the new Boeing Instructor Training Programme during the B787 training which is underway at two Boeing training centres.

However, probably the most important change in the instructional team is the establishment of instruction as a separate and valid career path. Whereas in many airlines seniority determines career progression, at Etihad it is through a meritocracy. Here the instructor role is valued, and because new entrants and young pilots will start on the A320 fleet and the intensity of instruction on that type is high, those who stay on the A320 have greater annual pay increments to the fixed portion of their instructor pay. In other words, the position of Instructor is valued both by an increase in status and through pay increases.

Those aspiring to become an instructor go through a stringent selection process, where not only will fundamental (and now, measurable) competency be assessed, but that critical factor present in the good instructor, passion for the role, will also feature. One career route proposed for graduate Flight Instructors of the ab-initio training system, will be to progress to A320 First Officer. After a period of about three years as an A320 First Officer they will return to the Etihad Flight College (see below) to instruct in the MPL course. During this period they will receive the same pay as their peers on line operations. The credibility and currency that they will be able to offer the students will enhance the value of the training.

New TrainingA couple of training initiatives are already up and running. As a lead-in to the introduction into service of the A380 and B787, Etihad flight deck crews are already flying with airlines which are operating those types - Air France and Malaysia for the A380 and Qatar for the B787.

The demand for training exceeds present equipment levels, and the instructor team are working flat out. External devices are being used, both as dry and wet lease, to meet the training volume, with this being carried out with more than one external provider. Those who follow any of these paths for a portion of a Type Rating course then complete a standards consolidation in Abu Dhabi, followed by the Skills Test.

On the equipment side of things 2014 has also taken off. John Wheldon, Manager Training Devices and Facilities, is delighted to explain that by the end of this year, Etihad will have installed five new CAE Level D full flight simulators (FFS) at the home base. These include two A320/, one B777/, one A380 and one B787. Not only do the new devices add to the total training capacity, but the procurement also includes upgrades for the existing four simulators, which brings them up to the latest aircraft standard, and replaces visual and motion systems with state of the art equipment. The replacement of hydraulic motion systems with electrically-driven platforms will mean that the entire simulator fleet now has a low energy footprint, which, apart from reducing running costs, also reduces the thermal load on the building - important when the external ambient temperature is well over 40C.

Cabin CrewThe needs of the cabin crew are also being addressed. New and updated training aids - door trainers, emergency evacuation trainers, firefighting trainers and so on for the existing and future fleets are all being installed. Here again the “Big Data” philosophy is coming into play. All the training support devices will be subject to the same rigor of daily serviceability, usage and quality checks that the flight simulators have enjoyed. In the industry as a whole, many trainers are aware that not all door trainers are well maintained, or practice fire extinguishers re-charged after a training event etc. With the data tracking to be introduced throughout the training areas, such shortfalls should be eliminated.

In planning the future training capabilities, Etihad has not been too worried about scaling the training aids to match the task. An impressive case in point is the new A380 Service and Safety training device being built by Spatial Composite Solutions, who are based in the nearby Emirate of Ras al Khaimah. This huge device, which will enter service at the end of 2014, comprises a 35m section of the A380 fuselage, complete with both decks and includes a full simulation of key aspects of the A380 cabin communications and safety equipment. Spatial Composites has also developed the concept of a door trainer fitted with a “virtual slide”. This provides wide field-of-view projections of the outside world prior to and after door opening, and enables various abnormal slide deployment (i.e. into Air Bridge if doors not disarmed!) and external fire scenarios to be demonstrated.

Ab-InitioIn many ways the MPL ab initio pilot training process has reached an initial level of maturity, with a considerable number of graduates now operating commercial flights. Naturally there has been a learning process as this training philosophy has been put in place. When MPL was conceived, the point of departure was usually based on the then legacy equipment and technologies, with a wish-list of desired training aids which not all training providers could afford. Consequently, not every MPL package was able to match the “ideal” profile of the training.

Naturally there will always be sceptics about the results, but the overwhelming majority of regulators and airlines who have been directly involved in the process have been impressed and reassured by the high levels of competence in multi-crew commercial operation displayed by graduates. So, by many measures MPL can be judged to be a success.

However, it may be time for a look at developing the basic concept. Richard Morris, Manager of Training Compliance, has, in a previous position, had regulatory responsibility to oversee MPL training. As a result he has seen both the strengths and weaknesses of some MPL programmes, and has been able to work on building what could be termed MPL v2.1. This will be delivered at the newly-acquired training facility at Al Ain, some hour and half away from Abu Dhabi. This was formerly the fixed wing part of Horizon Flight Training, and as the legacy training is eventually completed, the new centre will be upgraded and named the Etihad Flight College (EFC), supplying up to 120 ab initio graduates per year directly to the airline; the first course started in September 2014.

The course that the students will follow is an MPL syllabus, with some interesting changes. Given that the guidelines for MPL development do not specify that the practical training has to be carried out on a single engine aircraft, EFC proposes that the training will start on the twin-engined Diamond 42, then, via a soon-to-be-selected light twin jet for a high-performance introduction to route flying at jet speeds and performance. The progression will be to an initial type rating and licence issue on the A320.

What is likely to be the most controversial change is the suggested omission of solo flight. That is bound to rattle more than a few cages, but before racing to a judgement it is worth considering Etihad Flight College’s logic.

Historically, the prime reason given for solo flight is that the student needs to build the competencies and confidence to operate an aircraft single-handedly. In a commercial airline the flight must always be started with at least two crew fit for flight, so the only time a pilot has to operate the aircraft single handed is in a post pilot-incapacitation scenario. Therefore, if training for the pilot-incapacitation situation is introduced early in the syllabus as a natural part of the training, then the confidence to operate should that happen will have been built, and the ability to cope thereby assured. For traditionalists that presents an enormous leap of faith, but aviation would never have got to where it is today without long-established “absolutes” having been challenged.

Moving AheadThere is no doubt that Etihad is moving rapidly to meet the demands of the era of even bigger and newer fleets. What is also clear is that, as part of that process, fresh approaches are also being deployed to answer the challenges in a way adapted to present and future technologies and thinking. Certainly the impression is that it won’t stop here. That innovative philosophy has become a primary driver.

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