“We’re Looking at the Whole Training Journey”

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On the sidelines of the EATS conference in Berlin, CAT Editor Rick Adams had a conversation with Robin Glover-Faure, Vice President Sales & Marketing, L3Harris Commercial Aviation – about FFSs, FTDs, pilot shortage, VR, data analytics, and eye tracking.

CAT: In the wake of losing your L3Harris military cousins (acquired by CAE), was there ever much overlap? Were you building simulators for them?

Robin Glover-Faure (RGF): The military business, because of the content on board the aircraft, was run by a separate division. The only overlap would be in what we call the generics, in other words, the base design of the machine, which we would sometimes do for them, sometimes not. It was a separate business unit and therefore relatively straightforward to separate. No impact at all on us, primarily because we do military simulators in partnership with Thales where we would do the simulator content and they do the mission content - crossover types, 737s, A380s, A330s. It's a small part of the business, but we've always had to run the commercial and the military business separately, primarily because of the clearances and the sensitivity of the content.

CAT: What trends are you seeing in airline training as the industry attempts to recover from the persistent pandemic?

RGF: We're seeing encouraging momentum building in the simulator business. We recently announced the award of an A350 full-flight simulator and flight training device to a US carrier in Q2. That's our second A350 full-flight simulator that expands our portfolio and placement of devices in the US market. We announced Air Astana about a month ago, an A320 in their new training centre. And then announcing the BAA A320. We're a longstanding partner with BAA. We sold them MAX simulators last year. And this is really a continuation of that relationship.

CAT: They're very aggressive in building out their network.

RGF: They’re agile. They are open to new ways of training. And they were a significant launch customer for our new products, which are the flight training devices, categorized now through EASA’s FTD 1 and FTD 2.

We have chosen to invest in these products. We're offering these products with a full OEM software load. It's not synthesized, it's the same load. That means the pilots are experiencing the very same software, the very same experience when they are practicing various procedures. It is the software that we see in the full-flight simulator, so it gives an extremely high level of training fidelity. It doesn't have the motion, but what it allows through the regulations is the courses to be designed around the most effective training device available to the airline.

BAA have embraced that and they're looking at a ratio around two to one. So two full-flights to one FTD. We saw a very similar approach from Lufthansa, another very forward-looking training organisation. In addition to buying a 787 full-flight, they also bought a 787 FTD.

We do the full range now of the A320, the MAX, the A350, the 787, the NG. We've got five platforms out there that cover 85-90 percent of the market. The reason is relatively simple; when you calculate the cost per training hour, the cost of producing a simulator hour, when you blend that combination, you're getting somewhere between 24 and 28 percent cost saving overall.

It's not that you can put all the hours on the FTD, to be clear, but you can substitute somewhere in the region of 30-40 percent. Under the procedures, you can train on a 1.7 or 1.8 standard A320. But what you get with the FTD is you're going to be operating on the latest standard, so 2.0 or 2.1 as it’s coming. If you're training, for example, warning systems, windshear ahead, runway incursion, you're going to get the latest software developments from the manufacturer, the latest equipment, and you're going to see all of those warnings and work through them. Now for the dynamic manoeuvres, of course, you go into the full-flight simulator. But much of the training experience of pilots is understanding the warning system and understanding the correct response procedure. And the FTDs are absolutely superb for that.

The A320 was our launch platform (for the FTDs). We've got those placed with Lufthansa, with Spirit, with BAA. We're getting fantastic feedback. People are genuinely surprised at how good they are. It's what we thought, but it's still rewarding for us, and for two reasons. One, we've clearly built a very effective device. But secondly, they become advocates. And now whenever we discuss FTDs with customers, we actually say don't take our word for it, speak to the airlines that have taken it.

CAT: How do you see the evolution of the airline training recovery?

RGF: We're looking at the whole training journey. We’re training about 600 cadets in the next year. We were training about a thousand cadets pre-pandemic. So our cadet market is broadly down with the shape of the market. We see that recovering over the next two years as it becomes obvious that there's going to be a demand for pilots in 2023-24. In fact, as we see in the US market, the demand in the regionals has already started. We're already seeing a shortage of pilots in the regional markets. We see that being a little delayed into Europe. But it will follow.

It's a relatively straightforward explanation of why there is a potential shortage of pilots in the 2023-24 timeframe. We know there were about 350,000 pilots globally flying the commercial fleet; that was the case in 2019. Relatively easy to calculate because we know how many aircraft are flying. We can calculate the crew ratios. We also know that after 2019, many pilots were given early retirement. Some of them just decided to leave early. Some of them moved on to other careers. But what we saw was a very high level of attrition, certainly through 2020. The majority of those pilots will not return. None of them are going to come out of retirement and return their retirement benefits to go back flying. So you had an excessive period of attrition, about two and a half times what we would normally see in pilot attrition assumptions over that period.

Secondly, we've seen the pilot training market running broadly in line with the level of the overall market, which is about 50 percent. So we've seen the whole market come down 50 percent and the number of pilots being trained reduced to about 50 percent.

So you've got two factors that have resulted in significant numbers of pilots leaving the industry and a few entering the industry during the period 2020 through to now. We know, of course, it takes two years to train a pilot, and by 23 or 24, depending on which consensus you err towards, most people say 2024, the global demand would be back at where it was at the pandemic levels. Ergo, you will need 350,000 pilots. Now, the mix will probably be a little different. I think there'll be a greater mix of narrowbodies versus widebodies. I think the domestic markets in the global economies will recover quite quickly through 2023. The international is clearly going to take to 2025-26.

So what we're anticipating coming into 2022, we need to start training, at least to the normal rate of training, just to give the industry the number of pilots it needs. And then there's going to be a catch-up period to basically fill the gap left by the 2020-21 exodus of pilots. So that is a positive message for 2022-23 for people looking to train as a pilot looking for employment. 2023-24 is looking very strong.

The majority of the market in the last 18 months to two years has been ‘retail market’, people electing to pay for themselves and assuming that there'll be a job at the end, and there's a degree of reluctance to make that commitment. We're starting to see now much higher levels of interest.

L3Harris' high-fidelity fixed-based flight training device is being used by Lufthansa, Spirit and BAA Training. Image credit: L3Harris Commercial Aviation.

CAT: You’ve created a number of student scholarship programmes to help on the funding side of training.

RGF: We remain absolutely passionate about diversity, not just in terms of people of colour, more female pilots. These are givens, but also in terms of broadening the access to the pathway into a flight deck to those from lower-income backgrounds. It's become more difficult since 2008 to borrow on an unsecured basis as a result of the banking rule changes. So what we're doing to encourage that is we're now running a scholarship programme where we offer £10,000 ($13,400) scholarships to encourage those from diverse backgrounds where they wouldn't normally be able to become a pilot, attempting to lower the barrier. It clearly still leaves a sizeable payment to be made to train as a pilot. But what we're hoping is that we can start to work with airlines and we can start to build on that scholarship programme.

CAT: How are you searching for the candidates?

RGF: We invite the individual to apply through the normal process and then we invite them to answer three questions, primarily driven at motivation and what are the reasons that they want to be a pilot. And then we have a committee who assesses those submissions. We grade them objectively and make awards on that basis.

We just awarded two scholarships in the last month. They will be starting their course in December.

CAT: There's a lot of talk about reducing the use of the full-flight simulator, which is one of your product lines. It would seem to make sense to train more pilots more efficiently using devices other than the FFS. How do you see that working out long term in the curriculum?

RGF: Like many of us in the industry, we used the time during the pandemic to do a full strategic review of where training devices were going to move. The desire to maintain the highest levels of training, training excellence in terms of the equipment used, does not fall away. So the challenge is what technology can you use to reduce the cost of training to the airlines whilst increasing the effectiveness of that training? And that brings into play three criteria that we've broken out. The first is the type of devices, so we're not in the space that says we want to hang on to full-flight simulators being the only training device. We recognize that's not what our customers want and why we purposely made the decision to invest in the FTDs.

But we're going to go further. So we're now embracing VR technology. You can sometimes find that the regulatory requirements don't provide sufficient training and in certain parts of the course that results in a candidate completing that course without a comprehensive grasp of all of the competencies. And therefore you would naturally supplement that either with more full-flight time or with more FTD time. What we're saying is that's one way to do it, but another way to do it is actually look at some of the technologies that are coming out.

So why spend four hours in an FTD training for the scans when you can adopt a VR solution and use those four hours in an immersive environment with learning management embedded systems that can actually work the pilot through in a very real environment of learning those scans. That raises the competency in that particular part of the learning curve. It allows the FTDs and the full-flights to be used where they're effective. So what we're seeing is these new tools coming into initially supplement the overall quality of training. The obvious next step is then working with the regulators to start defining what is acceptable training and a training course. And I anticipate that the regulatory direction will be that some of these immersive technologies will be embedded into the regulation whereby you can from the get-go design a course using these technologies as a combined entity.

What we're trying to do is get the right training device at the right point in training and give that portfolio to airlines. Why would they do this? Well, everybody on the airline side is looking right across their operation and how they can deliver the same operational output, but at a lower cost. And we also see this is one way of addressing that need as well.

L3Harris launched a US$100 million training centre in London a few months before the start of the pandemic. Image credit: L3Harris.

CAT: Where do you stand with your virtual reality development?

RGF: We've got an established product range in our virtual maintenance trainers. We sell many of those, some in the European market, but they're very strong in the US market. We're bringing that expertise and that knowledge into the pilot side of the business. It's relatively straightforward to adapt those technologies across. And then, of course, the equipment itself is developing, started with goggles. Now you've got the handheld devices, so you can develop those devices to become even more effective.

CAT: You’re doing your own ab initio network. You're supplying devices to airline customers. Are you doing any joint venture or third-party contract training where you run the training centre?

RGF: We currently have a training centre in Bangkok where we have a partnership with Bangkok Airways. That model, we're seeing greater interest in the airline industry. The new-generation airlines across all markets would tend to go down a pay-by-the-hour type agreement, i.e. not owning the asset, not owning the training centre. What we're now seeing is the established airlines reviewing what is their longer-term plan. Do they want to own simulators, own training centres, or do they want to let go? So yes, we have had several of those conversations.

CAT: There seems to be a sentiment with airlines that maybe training’s not a core business for them. And would it make sense to put it out to someone that does it every day?

RGF: I think there's a couple of things that are driving it. One is that, during the pandemic, what it demonstrated to airlines is how much of their cost base is fixed. And some airlines were surprised that when the revenue dropped off, they weren't able to take the cost out because of the fixed-cost base, at the level they needed to, such that they were consuming cash at a level that was clearly alarming. Now, some of them were able to raise additive cash. Some of them were not. But the lesson learned was watch very carefully the level of your fixed costs on the basis of potentially another pandemic occurring at some point in the future.

So where does that lead us? That leads us to thinking, what are the fixed costs that I want to have in my business? And simulator training fits into that category, whereby you can lay off some of those fixed costs to a third-party provider like ourselves and our competitors where we own the simulators, we own the land, and then it's an operating charge, and that operating charge can then vary with volume. So we're definitely seeing that type of thinking push towards the outsource model.

I think airlines will always rightly hold the intellectual ownership of their own training management system. They rightly won't want to cede control of that. But the mechanics, the devices, are all certified, they’re known standards, and that sits without that competency, so they will keep their own training philosophy. Now, that doesn't mean that they can't use external instructors. They can. But it ultimately serves their own training philosophy and how they want to train their pilots in the culture, they want to train the pilots. But the model is entirely compatible with that.

CAT: You've been doing some interesting things with eye tracking in the simulators. What prompted that and what have you found?

RGF: Customer demand was what prompted it. Customers found it gave another level of insight into the training experience. And now what we find is that a lot of customers now specify eye tracking, and they build the eye-tracking capability in terms of the feedback that they get from the trainees into their training philosophy. I would say not all airlines have yet latched onto eye tracking, but the majority have and it's developing momentum. Some of this is because it's new. It requires a different approach to how you train. You have to then bring in how the pilot is scanning and using the insights it gives you, but we see that growing, not shrinking over the course of time.

CAT: You're also introducing data analysis.

RGF: We have made the decision that we will invest in this part of our business to differentiate. We started by looking at three principles that we needed to build around in data analytics. The first is you have to decide who owns the data. Secondly, you have to be platform agnostic. So if you're going to give a set of data tools, it can't just be for your own devices. You have to make it applicable to other devices. Now we made a conscious decision to do that so that we could provide our end customers a comprehensive solution and not just that it has to be on an L3Harris device. The third element is you have to give customers a choice of whether they want cloud-based, on premises-based data, or whether they want both. Most customers will almost certainly want some form of a cloud solution, but some customers will require an on-prem solution.

The flight data recorder is an area where we're clearly experts. We've got a very large market share of those, so we are developing cloud-based tools and on-prem tools that will allow the data to come off the aircraft into the airline's data pool. We've got access and expertise to understand line operations. And when we move into the concept of de-identified data pools, we can offer customers the choice of de-identifying the data, but developing a huge data pool and industry data pool that allows them to compare their operation against that data pool. We then go to the other side of our business, which is the training side, and exactly the same is true. There's huge amounts of data that come off the simulators, FOQA and SOQA and all those sort of things that are well known now. But we can then take that data and then we can start to look at the line operations data, we can look at the training data. And then all these roads start to lead to developing tools that can analyse that data, turn it into information. We've got some AI content in there as well. L3Harris has a very deep resource of specialist engineers because of the military side of the business, so we can reach into the organisation and pull a very capable resource to help us develop AI tools and analysis tools, then start to put some definition on evidence-based training.

We understand evidence-based training in a conceptual level, but where do you get the evidence from? And yes, you can get the evidence from reports of events that happen on the line and the various reporting elements which give you that evidence. But we think we can enrich that by many times by using the data, analysing the data and then being able to give training solutions to CEOs who will look across their operation and how their aircraft are being operated on the ground. Dwell time on the gate, turnaround times, how the aircraft are being operated on the line. How does that then translate into what you see in the simulator?

We launched a tool four months ago called CARA (Competency Assessment Recording Application), which is a tool that allows an instructor to identify the no-tech behaviors with word recognition and then codify those observed competencies and integrate them into the data that's available so that you can correlate the application of no-tech skills with the actual outcome of how the aircraft has been flown, the successful outcome of the manoeuvre.

We’re working with airlines in developing a suite of tools that ultimately give airlines the means by which they can take evidence-based training to the next level, which is almost surgically apply effective training to the areas of the operation where you're going to get the greatest improvement in safety, greatest improvement in efficiency, and that ultimately, of course, is where the value of these tools will lie.

We think we can uniquely differentiate because of our experience with flight data recorders and being able to bring the line operation into the training operation.

CAT: Are you using this currently in your own training operation?

RGF: Yes, we are. We haven't yet integrated the line operations. That's the next phase. But yes, we basically now are able to download from our own devices and run them through the tools such that we can now start to demonstrate the effectiveness of how you can use this data. The other areas that we're also looking at is being able to assess against a de-identified data pool. We're able to look at the comparator of an individual pilot's performance against the data pool and then we can prompt the areas of that particular pilot's operation that would benefit from more focused training. So those tools are now live and we can we use those.

We're also looking to bring them into our academy training. The fidelity will be less because of the quality of the flight data recorders, but there's still a lot of data that can come off even training aircraft. And the next step is bringing in a tool that could break down in three dimensions a rebuild of, for example, flying a circuit. A student that flies solo, you can break down afterwards and show in 3D exactly how they’ve flown. The areas where their performance has been good. The areas where you need to improve. So we see, ultimately, data as being the thread that will run right through our whole business. Right from the avionics, right through to the training.

L3Harris has ab initio flight training academies in Bournemouth, Cranfield and Crawley in the UK; Ponte de Sor, Portugal; and Orlando, Florida, USA. Image credit: L3Harris.

CAT: As it inevitably happens in this industry, new people pop up that think they've got a better idea. How do you talk with the customer as to the advantages you bring to them?

RGF: We've got about 300 simulators deployed globally. We spend a lot of time utilising that deployed base and therefore the customers to understand exactly what customers need from our devices, what direction do they want to go? And we use that insight to then inform our next product portfolio. So the FTDs, for example, came from that process.

We would welcome competition on the basis that there is always somebody that's going to come into the industry with a really good idea and ‘steel sharpens steel’. You need that innovation. You need those new players to come in to bring those ideas. What we will play to is the fundamentals. So high-quality devices that give a very high level of technical reliability, devices that are sustainable in terms of the power usage, spares usage and the cost of owning and operating those simulators and the fidelity of those simulators. Our FTD simulators, we purposely chosen to put them at the very higher end of the fidelity spectrum. Certainly, they're sitting above what is required by the regulation now. We could engineer them down, but we believe that would result in a lesser product. And actually, more importantly, our customers don't want us to engineer them down. If the training experience is far superior, it's a value proposition that our customers embrace. It's a fast-moving market and it actually needs all of us to be coming to the table and giving choice because the choice ultimately drives up the quality.

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