Pilot Training During a Pandemic

By Capt. Leja Collier (Delta), Human Factors & Training Chair; F/O Todd Lisak (JetBlue), Training Council Chair; and Capt. Rob Thomas (United), Director of Pilot Training and Training Council Vice Chair

With the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous changes have hit the airline industry and the profession, including how pilots train and remain current in the aircraft they fly. The reduction in passenger air travel has meant that most pilots are flying less and that they’re going longer between training events due to exemptions from training requirements related to the pandemic.

Since ALPA’s inception in 1931, the Association has made safety paramount. It’s woven into the union’s DNA with the motto “Schedule with Safety” and guides every action that ALPA members take as professional airline pilots.

Exemptions: A lacking solution

An example of this dedication to safety has been ALPA’s repeated objections to extensions of Exemption 18511, initially granted on March 25 in response to a petition filed with the Department of Transportation by Airlines for America. The exemption extends recurrent training, also called continuing qualification, and takeoff and landing currency. After two extensions, the exemptions now cover training due in August and September to be conducted by November 30 and December 31, respectively. The initial exemption granted in March was issued without being published in the Federal Register for public comment and has since been extended twice—at a time when pilots are flying less yet have increased stressors in their lives, which have the potential to accelerate skill atrophy.

Initially, it was understandable that airline managers would need these exemptions since they were temporarily shutting down training centers and deep cleaning facilities due to COVID-19 while implementing procedures to help prevent the spread once the centers reopened. But the two extensions, first in May and again in July, occurred even after the Association registered serious safety concerns and the need for additional mitigations, including flight experience minimums and not pairing two exempted pilots on the same crew.

ALPA, however, has been receptive to other training exemptions, such as the nicknamed “no touch” exemption, No. 18512, which covers the handling and wearing of certain equipment during emergency procedures training.

The Association feels strongly that these exemptions should only be temporary, allowing pilots and flight crews to maintain safety protocols during the pandemic, but not to become the “new normal.”

Distance learning

For some years, there’s been a shift toward distance learning, which has dramatically increased during the pandemic. For instance, instructor-led classroom training has moved to distance learning, which in some cases has resulted in remote instructor-led conversations transitioning to video conferencing via software like Zoom. In other cases, distance learning is being conducted as self-study without an instructor. While this shift has been understandable given concerns regarding social distancing, classroom sizes, and additional exposure potential when traveling to the training center and staying in hotels, ALPA believes that the challenges of distance learning haven’t been adequately mitigated, especially given the rapid shift to this type of study.

Individuals who’ve taken a course in which all of the content is delivered online know that the influence of a classroom environment is lost to a certain extent. While distance learning may be adequate as a stop-gap measure, the trade-offs—for example, instructors unable to clearly recognize during a course which students “get it” and those who need extra attention—aren’t worth the potential safety implications without adequate mitigations.

In addition, students utilizing distance learning may find it difficult to obtain needed help from an instructor—especially those who are struggling and don’t speak up without the instructor noticing or offering assistance.

Distance learning also introduces the potential for distractions and other issues that the learner has to manage and may not be able address. For example, learning in a relatively quiet classroom is much different than learning near a crying baby, noisy neighbor, or ongoing construction. These and countless other learning distractions that would never be encountered at an airline training center may now be the reality for a pilot undergoing training today.

Traditional in-person learning in an away-from-home environment has many benefits, including allowing learners to focus their attention on course materials and the ability to engage with other course participants and after-class study groups at the hotel. Interactions like this and those that occur during class breaks, lunches, and even on the shuttle to and from the hotel are often the starting point for professional growth and mentorships.

If the airline industry is going to continue to rely on distance learning, mitigations must be implemented to improve the educational experience for pilots. The creation of some type of online “hub” for support outside of the regular course structure seems to be of value to the learning process. But like many things, it only works if students are familiar with it and use it.

Numerous other considerations must be factored into any distance-learning program, such as ensuring that the person conducting and/or developing it is a bona fide expert, as well as trained in distance-learning techniques. For instance, does the instructor recognize when material needs to be revisited due to technical, connectivity, or other attendance difficulties? Can students replay previous segments for their own reinforcement? And most importantly, is there a sufficiently robust validation process to ensure that learning has indeed occurred?

Improving cleaning practices

As a result of ALPA’s concerns regarding pilot health and the proper cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing of aircraft, including the flight deck, the FAA and airlines have been working to address these issues. On April 17, the FAA issued Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) 20009 regarding flight crew health monitoring, health protection (cleaning and disinfecting aircraft cockpits and frequently touched surfaces by crewmembers), employee notification after a positive COVID-19 test of employees, and personal protective equipment available for crewmembers. Because the SAFO contains only recommendations, airline compliance is optional.

As the voice of pilots and the conscience of the airline industry, ALPA volunteered to participate and take a leadership role in a new RTCA Special Committee to develop flight deck and cabin cleaning and sanitizing standards. By developing standards regarding the health and safety of crewmembers, the Association is working to rebuild public confidence in the airline industry.

Over the past few months, ALPA has seen many advancements in aircraft cleaning (see “The Landing,” in the June–July 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.).

The flightpath ahead

All of these changes to the industry and profession have the potential to create unwelcome sources of stress in a job that requires the utmost attention to safety. The Association is actively engaged in multiple efforts to prevent stress-related distractions in these unprecedented times and has repeatedly communicated to pilots the need to be open and realistic about recognizing stress while remaining focused on maintaining the highest levels of professionalism. Most importantly, ALPA has actively promoted its Pilot Peer Support (PPS) program, and similar airline-specific programs, to help pilots experiencing stress or other emotional struggles (see “Elevating ALPA’s Pilot Peer Support Program”).

ALPA has also implemented its DART program, a special data-collection system, for pilots to report any training concerns they might have. The Association has been actively pursuing actions to address these concerns quickly and satisfactorily—thanks in part to having the provided data (see “Rolling Out ALPA’s DART System” in the May 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot).

As airline traffic picks up, many events that were once a rarity may likely become commonplace. One example is returning stored aircraft to service. Airplanes are meant to be in the air, and sitting unused on the ground can present unknown issues. ALPA wants to hear members’ firsthand experiences in order to inform others and implement any needed corrective action as soon as possible.

Maintaining pilot skills

The skills pilots use to safely operate a modern airliner can diminish if not used for some time, so the Association is advocating for ways that pilots can maintain and, where needed, regain proficiency and currency.

In 2019, ALPA asked the International Civil Aviation Organization to evaluate the different methods used globally to train and qualify pilots to operate airline transport-category aircraft in scheduled operations. To date, the United States remains the sole country to require an airline transport pilot certificate for all pilots of these type of operations.

As a result, while atrophy of skills can occur due to the lack of flying and training, pilots of U.S. airlines are better prepared to protect against this due to the higher minimum experience requirements in the United States than in the rest of the world.

But existing regulations are only one component. In addition, some airlines are implementing new scheduling procedures that give priority to pilots at the top of the seniority list until they achieve a certain number of hours. This scheduling then continues down the seniority list, reducing the potential of skill atrophy for the airline’s pilot workforce. This, along with providing minimum guarantee pay hours each month, is proving to be a win/win for both airlines and pilots.

Less flying has also meant a reduced need for airline captains, which has resulted in the need for seat-transition training for those downgraded back to the right seat and first officer status. Some pilot groups are working with airline managements to develop a “training needs” matrix for those downgrading, based on whether the pilot held the seat in the aircraft type before and, if so, how many hours the pilot has in that seat in type and how long ago the time was logged.

“Schedule with Safety”

The Association believes it’s vital that airline pilots with human factors experience offer their expertise and insights to their respective airline’s Flight Operations, Standards, Training, and Safety Departments to fully incorporate human factors into their procedures, training, and associated documentation. It’s never been more important to ensure strict adherence to standard operating procedures given that the new stressors airline pilots are facing could potentially lead to distraction.

During these unprecedented times, ALPA members continue to exhibit the utmost professionalism and to keep “Schedule with Safety,” the Association’s motto for more than eight decades, at the forefront in order to safely transport passengers and cargo to their destinations around the globe.

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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