Keeping Aircrew Proficient During (Pandemic) Downtime

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The pandemic can impact the proficiency of pilots and cabin attendants, leading to undesirable incidents. Marco van Sterkenburg has some suggestions for addressing skills fade.

While the airline industry is slowly opening up, many employees have not worked for a while. With new lockdown measures lurking around every corner, there is the immediate necessity to rethink the way we keep pilots, cabin crew, and ground staff proficient for their safety-critical jobs… for right now, and in the future. There are plenty of obstacles to overcome in these abnormal circumstances.

We Got Rusty

A few weeks ago, the Dutch Safety Board warned aviation companies to be careful when putting their aircraft back into service. The lack of practice after being grounded as part of the pandemic restrictions cause crew members to forget some of their knowledge and skills. As a consequence of Covid, more mishaps have occurred in aviation. These mistakes could have severe repercussions.

Since the start of the pandemic, US pilots have reported making more errors in flight due to being out of practice during downtime. They felt ‘rusty’ after not flying for several weeks or months. Dozens of mishaps were reported to the anonymous NASA Aviation Safety Reporting (ASRA) system.

Never Waste a Good Crisis

If you do not use your knowledge or practice skills, the ability to use them properly while performing a job declines… and fast. Scientific research shows that after a long period away from the aircraft, the ability to react quickly is better retained than the ability to act reliably. Aircrew members get up to speed quickly by doing their jobs in the aircraft, but it is three times more likely that errors are made in that process. Although the return to the cockpit or cabin may feel as though the last flight was only yesterday, this cannot be taken for granted when performing a safety-critical job. At this time, face-to-face training should be at an absolute minimum, but you still need to ensure all employees are proficient, sharp and prepared.

Airlines and aviation authorities realize that now is the right moment to reconsider how crew members remain proficient. This is a necessary decision, but it can also be seen as an opportunity to redesign our learning methods.

Proficiency is one of the most crucial aspects of the flight professionals’ work. For the sake of safety, cabin crews are always expected to be fully skilled and have the necessary knowledge about how to act in any (emergency) situation immediately. Topics like flight safety, unruly passengers, dangerous goods, product information, and sales & service should be top-of-mind at all times. It is the company’s responsibility to support and help those crews to have the right knowledge and skills to perform their jobs on the high level that is required, at any given moment.

Rethink Training Methods

It is generally expected that classroom training will not return to pre-covid levels when the pandemic ends. The coronavirus crisis has accelerated the use of digital learning in the airline industry, but simulators can only partly provide a solution. We need other ways for aircrew members to remain proficient and qualified during the pandemic period.

Online adaptive learning can be an efficient and effective solution. Smart algorithms can identify and fix knowledge gaps for each individual pilot and crew member, helping them to retain crucial knowledge continuously. Franck Euzet, Cabin Crew Safety Training and Safety Pro Level Manager at Air France, explained in CAT how Air France keeps its 12,000 crew members trained and prepared for any situation during the pandemic. The airline invited all crew members to continue using a learning app during downtime voluntarily. Surprisingly, the engagement rate increased by 22% and AF employees maintained their knowledge levels.

Emergency Knowledge is Constant Lockdown

Tasks are far more easily remembered when performed regularly. Emergency protocols, which (fortunately) don’t happen daily, are non-repetitive tasks, which makes remembering them much harder. You could say that emergency knowledge is in a constant lockdown, simply because people hardly even perform or practice them. That knowledge should be top of mind at all times and repeated regularly, not just once after simulation training or during exam time.

A good example of knowledge retention and anchoring is KLM Cargo, who has replaced the recurrent exam with ongoing learning. All employees who have satisfactory results on their continuous training are approved to keep doing their job. It saves money and time, improves productivity and safety, reduces (near) accidents, provides more insight into proficiency, eliminates the need for stressful biannual exams… and it is approved by the authorities.

Covid crisis aside, proficiency training should be a continuous process, not something that you practice once a year for a (recurrent) exam in a simulator or classroom. Modern learning technologies, like adaptive learning systems or VR and AR, support airlines and their authorities in innovating the training programs. We should aim to get rid of the knowledge peak around the moment of exams. Employees should be qualified and prepared to perform their jobs at all times, resulting in more engaged employees, satisfied authorities and a safer world.

Pandemic or no pandemic, the airline industry should stop compromising on safety, and start focusing on high proficiency levels at all times. Smart digital learning tools can make learning more effective and efficient. It can partially replace face-to-face training and, if well executed, replace the exams. This will help you to cut costs and decrease mistakes and accidents, while keeping your crew members proficient during any crisis.

About the Author

Marco van Sterkenburg is CEO and Co-Founder of Drillster, a learning application company based in Utrecht, The Netherlands. He previously co-founded international business consultancy Syllion.

More About Skill Decay
  • Day One of Virtual APATS (Tuesday, 31st August, 2021) featured excellent speakers and breakout real-time discussions addressing Skills Decay for pilots, maintenance technicians, and cabin crew.
  • The first CAT Leader Forum on ‘HoT’ issues facing European aviation training focused on Skills Decay.


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