A Most-Wanted List for Aviation Training

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Image credit: Rick Adams / Midjourney

At the end of last year, the US National Transportation Safety Board Chair, Jennifer Homendy, announced that the NTSB was discontinuing their “Most Wanted List” of desired improvements in aviation, rail, marine and road transportation. The list had been published for nearly a quarter-century and was a constant reminder of some of the key risks and challenges which should be dealt with sooner rather than later.  Most Wanted List Archive (ntsb.gov)

EASA similarly produces a “Dirty Dozen” of aviation Human Factors risks (complacency, fatigue, distraction, etc.).  The Dirty Dozen 2024 | EASA Community (europa.eu)

More than 400 items were published across all NTSB transport modes from 1990-2023, and there were some notable successes in aviation, including fuel tank inerting systems, standards for airplane certification in icing conditions, and rules related to Part 121 flight crew fatigue.

Runway incursion recommendations first appeared on the 1990 list but disappeared by 2000. Problem solved? Apparently not, based on the spate of recent airport problems in the US and dramatically highlighted by JAL516 earlier this month.

Some risk items on the list have languished for years without action being taken by regulators. (The NTSB is an independent agency without executive / legislative authority to implement its advice.) For example, the Board has advocated for cockpit image recorders since at least 2003, and the recommendation was still on last year’s final MWL. But the issue has been vigorously resisted by pilot unions on grounds of privacy.

NTSB has also lobbied for extending the time (to 25 hours) on cockpit voice recorders beyond the current regulatory two hours – because the CVR for Alaska Airlines 1282 was not retrieved quickly, the recording of the flight was automatically erased and is not available to those investigating the Boeing MAX door blowout accident. (By the way, 25 hours is standard in Europe.)

Some have suggested the demise of the NTSB Most Wanted List was part of the political negotiation over the FAA Reauthorization dragging through Congress.

A MWL for Training

Reminders, to-do lists, calls-to-action are a good thing. The NTSB MWL was a plain-speaking Post-it Note which prodded the industry to do better. I’m sorry to see it fade away.

In aviation training, there are longstanding issues which persist without satisfactory resolution. As well as new challenges to be addressed.

So for your consideration (and feedback), here is my proposal for issues begging action, some for years / decades, a “Most-Wanted List for Commercial Aviation Training”:

  • Recurring Shortages of Skilled Aviation Personnel
  • Transition from Prescriptive/Hours to Competency-Based Training
  • Lack of Standardisation of Instructors
  • High Training Costs and Debt Loads of Student Pilots
  • Outreach to Young People and Underserved Populations
  • Scientific Approach to Fit-to-Fly Factors: Fatigue, Stress, Mental Health
  • Cost-Effective Sustainability in Training Environments
  • Efficient Implementation of New Technology Training Enablers
  • Safe Integration of Emerging Aircraft Types into the Airspace

The first five items are highly interrelated: boom / bust personnel cycles, instructional acronym chaos, instructor inconsistency, career-crushing debt, and under-represented youth / women / minorities. The aviation industry might consider these initiatives:

  1. Establish a global personnel-supply-chain system with airlines, airports, schools, and training providers collaborating to deliver a steady stream of qualified and competent pilots, cabin crew, technicians, controllers, dispatchers, ground personnel, etc. to preclude critical shortages of skilled professionals.
  2. Establish a common instructional methodology with commonly understood terminology, using advanced technologies such as virtual reality and AI (augmented intelligence) in a competency-based, data-driven framework of personalized learning. Let’s blend the best of Adaptive Learning, ADDIE, AQP, CBTA, EBT, IBT, KSA, MPL, etc. into one system for all (with flexibility).
  3. Establish a global standard for instructors with common terminology and grading, using advanced feedback mechanisms, including AI, to enhance the instructor’s knowledge, capabilities and observations.
  4. Create – and fund – sources of stable financial support for young people to gain entry into the training pipeline based on aptitude and potential (rigorous selection), not just a family credit card. We need more sponsored programmes such as Aer Lingus, BA, TUI, United Aviate, etc. with their vetted partner flight schools and banks.
  5. Establish (as part of the personnel-supply-chain system in No. 1) an industry-wide promotional campaign to highlight the excitement and benefits of a wide variety of aviation careers to especially appeal to groups which have been largely overlooked.

Fit-to-Fly has become one of the most-discussed issues of the moment (after being mostly ignored until the Germanwings tragedy). A core problem is an antiquated aeromedical review system which incentivizes hiding mental issues or risk ruining one’s career. But it’s also an area ripe for, again, scientifically sound information / training / coaching so individuals may better understand themselves and potential paths to day-to-day wellness. If human factors are leading causes of risk / incidents / accidents, they must be addressed with the same emphasis as stick-and-rudder skills.

Sustainability? It’s not just electric aircraft. There needs to be a comprehensive SMS: Sustainability Management System to educate flight schools and airline operations on long-term management of finite resources.

In terms of technology, professional A / M / V / XR headsets, visual systems, SATCE, haptics, device motion and their software integration now seem to be maturing to the point of replacing / supplementing aspects of training traditionally performed in full-flight simulators. We need enabling regulation (which always seems to come too slowly) and especially research-based, controlled studies to determine where the shiny new tools best fit in the “common instructional methodology” curricula (see No. 2 above).

Finally, the training industry needs to become much more involved with the advanced air mobility (AAM) / eVTOL community. Thus far, training considerations seem to be “we’ll get around to it” once the aircraft is certified (with a few exceptions). These aircraft – and especially the airspaces they’ll fly in – are not simplistic; they are more akin to current urban helicopter operations. Developing an AAM pilot cadre the public can trust is critical… and takes time.

We invite your thoughts. Are there other vital issues which should be added to the Aviation Training Most Wanted List? Our community works best when it collaborates and solves challenges together.


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