Investment by airlines in voluntary structural changes over the past few years has ratcheted up the knowledge, skills and self-confidence of tens of thousands of cabin safety professionals, several airline and regulatory specialists said in April. They told sessions of the World Aviation Training Conference and Tradeshow (WATS 2012) in Orlando, Florida, U.S., that a high priority has been crewmember competence that would last between training events.
This drive for higher competence involves increased hands-on experience in managing threats and errors in both normal operations and emergency scenarios. In several cases cited, comprehensive overhauls of cabin safety training were byproducts of airline mergers and acquisitions.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has stepped up its involvement in cabin safety issues, compared with recent years, and has a significant amount of relevant guidance material in development, said Martin Maurino, safety and efficiency support officer, ICAO. “Our main focus right now is developing competency-based cabin crew training,” he said, briefing WATS 2012 attendees on the latest draft. “Competency refers to a combination of skills, knowledge and attitudes to perform a task according to a standard. Annex 6, Part 1, [high-level] standards address international aircraft operations and basically … require that air operators have annual initial and recurrent cabin crew safety training, approved by the regulator, that usually covers evacuation, decompression and emergency procedures.”
ICAO’s current guidance manual — Doc 7192, Part E-1, Cabin Attendants’ Safety Training — dates from January 1996, he said. “Our overarching initiative will raise awareness internationally about the importance of cabin crew safety training, and then, in the actual material, we want to provide detailed guidance,” Maurino said. “We’re developing the framework for cabin crew competencies and rewriting this manual to fit that framework.
“We want to provide additional guidance … not necessarily within our regulations or standards but [concerning all issues] that should be addressed. States and airlines [have requested] clear guidance regarding requalification — that is, what should the refresher training encompass if the flight attendant has been off the line for six months or a year? We’re also working on guidance for training the in-charge cabin crewmember, the senior cabin crew and the purser in a multi-crew environment.”
Also covered are civil aviation authority approval of aircraft-representative training devices such as cabin simulators and door mockups, safety management system (SMS), fatigue risk management system (FRMS), quality management of training programs, aviation medicine and calibration of instructors. “We would like to see [ICAO’s] baseline competencies set the bar internationally,” Maurino added. “We’re not going to dictate the aircraft-specific procedures; it will be up to each operator to prove to their civil aviation authority that their crews are competent. … Today’s cabin crewmember’s role is everyday safety, not just responding when things go horribly wrong. Cabin crews are there to prevent accidents and incidents.”
In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) offers airlines the option to voluntarily participate in its advanced qualification program (AQP) for flight attendant training in place of conventional training. AQP already helps most major airlines to recognize and correct safety-training weaknesses during normal operations, prove cabin crew readiness to handle known emergencies, and work through the risks and complexities of integrating flight attendant groups, said Doug Farrow, FAA AQP program manager, and Maria Teresa Cook, in-flight training AQP manager for United Airlines. There are now 45 AQP programs for flight attendants and pilots at about 30 U.S. airlines. AQP was proposed for flight attendants about 20 years ago, but the program only attracted serious interest from the U.S. airline industry after 2006, Farrow said.
Farrow and Cook cited the United Airlines and Continental Airlines merger. “Subsidiary United flight attendants had to undergo regulatory training prior to being able to serve as crewmembers on the Continental [air operator] certificate,” Cook said. “The problem was that traditional regulatory requirements provide little allowance for flight attendants’ previous experience.” AQP contains provisions for the analysis of entry-level workforce qualifications that consider demographic information, including past experience.
Because these companies had no immediate plans for United flight attendants to begin flying on Continental aircraft, there was “a perfect opportunity to utilize AQP,” Cook said. “AQP really allows customization and innovation … training that is particular to the work group and to the needs of workers … already qualified on more than one aircraft type.”
The FAA approved the resulting integration training program with a strong computer-based training component, including validation of all flight attendants’ understanding of merger-related changes in their normal and emergency procedures. “We looked at the training functionality, what was working,” Cook said. “Data from flight attendant performance … indicated high ‘satisfactory’ ratings in all of the integration training lessons and overwhelmingly positive feedback from the flight attendants. They appreciated the ability to [learn] from home at their own pace and to do the training on their own terms. … About 170 qualified instructor evaluators in United in-flight AQP are training almost 25,000 flight attendants on continuing qualification, requalification and Boeing 787 aircraft transition.”
AQP quickly has become the “new normal” for both pilots and flight attendants, the FAA’s Farrow said. “About 75 percent of [U.S. flight attendants] are either training under AQP now in their recurrent courses or [their airlines] are in the application process and will use AQP training relatively soon,” he said.
“We work in terms of planned hours rather than programmed hours so there is no minimum requirement of training hours. … [What and how airlines teach] are established by a detailed, front-end instructional analysis — a best guess as to what the training program will look like. After they launch AQP, they collect very detailed performance, safety and operational data to determine if, in fact, their curriculum is working.”
The intent is for air carriers to design and build the ideal training program for their flight attendants given their route structure, their stage lengths and particular strengths or weaknesses of the training media available. Task analysis and competency analysis continue throughout each airline’s AQP program, with the FAA analyzing a subset of the resulting training data to validate the program. Operational data and voluntary reporting programs, such as aviation safety action programs, will tell the FAA if the airlines have targeted the training at their areas of highest risk, he added.
Flight attendants much prefer to be tested before training sessions rather than only watch someone else or endure what Farrow said some call “death by PowerPoint” — that is, boring presentations. “They want to be active,” he said. “Most of the in-flight group [in a Continental AQP small-group tryout in 2008] at first seemed to find this kind of intimidating because they were not used to the approach, but then most reported, ‘I have more confidence now because I’m actually doing all the [hands-on] stuff now; I had better do it right because all my peers are watching me. … I have more confidence that I can do this on the line.’”
FAA cabin safety inspectors readily can compare deidentified data for AQP instructor-evaluators, enabling the agency to assess grading consistency and inter-rater reliability. Even flight attendants’ comments about their training on personal Facebook pages have become a valuable source of feedback for the FAA, Farrow said. “Most in-flight folks today seem to have Facebook pages,” he said. “I’m not spying on flight attendants, but [the publicly accessible pages can reflect] how a course is really working [and help answer the question,] ‘Is the in-flight group accepting this?’”
Training Per Audits
Even after exercising great care in designing conventional or AQP-based training, actual line operations periodically reveal performance shortcomings, said Kris Hutchings, manager in-flight safety, WestJet. “In Phase 3 of our SMS in 2007, we developed our cabin operations safety audit program … a proactive way to identify hazards aboard the aircraft and to look for opportunities for continuous improvement,” Hutchings said. These audits tie into the quality control elements of operational quality assurance, where the focus is safety processes and procedures rather than individual people, he said. “I tell our flight attendants, ‘If 25 percent of you are missing a certain element, that is not your fault, that is the [airline] leadership’s fault for not clearly defining the element in the manual, giving you the tools you need to do your job, or training you [in] the proper standard,’” he added.
WestJet performs open audits, closed audits and combinations. Open audits begin with a briefing of the aircraft crew about the audit and interaction during the flight. During closed audits — about 80 percent of all those conducted — the auditor does not disclose his or her presence to the aircraft crew. Transport Canada reviews the audit results to assess the SMS. Details of the process are available to any company crewmember via the airline’s website. Results now go to the audited aircraft crew about a week after the audit. Details of the process are available to any company crewmember via the airline’s website.
Each element of the audit — such as the cabin safety demonstration — has two tiers. The first tier checks only whether the demonstration was performed. The second tier captures details of procedural deviations. “For tier 1, our [required score] is 100 percent,” Hutchings said. “There is no reason that a flight attendant should not be doing those duties. For tier 2, a 90 percent [score] is required [because of issues such as] negative habits and procedural drift.”
Results now go to the audited aircraft crew about a week after the audit. “During an open audit, there should be 100 percent compliance, but we actually do see quite a few failures,” he said. “That tells me that flight attendants really just did not know [how to comply, and that the airline] probably had a gap in communicating. … A lot of the time, however, the cabin crewmembers do make sure that galleys are secure and all the latches are done, which tells me they know what to do but, unless they’re being watched, they have chosen not to follow procedures.”
A new Apple iPad application prompts auditors to record audit checklist items. “We’ve eliminated a lot of human error,” Hutchings said. “With the old paper method, there were about two hours of post-audit duties, manually inputting data for 264 check elements [with the] opportunity to miss some elements. Post-flight administrative duties have decreased by about 50 percent. Early results show that audits will increase 60 percent to about 300 this year.”
Comparison of audit results with safety reports on issues such as door operating errors, errors in oxygen acceptance and handling of dangerous goods also aid the corrective process. “Audit analysis ties into our fatigue risk management program,” Hutchings said. “We can ask, ‘Are people most likely to fail elements on day one, day two or day three? On what leg of the day was the [failure]? … We had some issues a few years ago with doors being opened in the armed mode [although] we never had an inadvertent slide deployment. … The majority were happening on single-leg days or one-day pairings, which went against everything we had been thinking. Those flight attendants might not be thinking ahead [as they would for a trip with] four or five legs.”
One WestJet corrective action plan addressed audit results indicating that galley equipment sometimes was not stowed and secured per procedure when not in use, causing injuries. “If flight attendants have never had anything happen to them [as a consequence of procedural noncompliance], they kind of get comfortable,” he said. “But the distance between [one-time] complacency and a negative habit is very short … pretty soon they don’t even know what’s right and what’s wrong.” Correcting knowledge deficiencies — in this case, misconceptions about the meaning of galleys being secure — also has been effective, he added.
Emphasis on proving competence during training and maintaining proficiency long after training has made a huge impact on flight operations, said Myrna Andrews, manager in-flight AQP, SkyWest Airlines. Before AQP, the airline was not “really testing the flight attendants’ proficiency level, we were testing their ability to mimic. As a ground instructor, [I would ask myself,] ‘Why am I showing this person how to do this? I will not be on the aircraft if this person needs to do this.’”
Outdated practices sometimes prove to be detrimental to building real competence, some airlines have concluded. “For the test on every drill, we used to give flight attendants a practice opportunity beforehand,” said Megan Hallenberg, manager in-flight curriculum development, SkyWest Airlines. “We would show them how to do it, let them practice and then do the testing. With AQP [today, before a training session begins,] we want flight attendants to come in and demonstrate their proficiency.”
The airline’s four-point grading scale and associated reason codes are essential to data-driven assessment of individuals and programs. “The data help us pinpoint where we need to train,” Andrews added. Grading also accommodates threat and error management. “Maybe the flight attendants made some errors, for example, but they corrected these in a timely manner, or they momentarily deviated from the qualification standard, but they came back to the standard,” she said. Grading now reflects that their skills were clearly effective.
Previously, any deviation from standard practice, even a small error, forced instructor-evaluators to make trainees repeat the drill or event, Hallenberg said. “Today, if they recover, they pass,” she said. “That is a better learning environment for everybody, and it’s making flight attendants more proficient overall. However, if we have people who [score 2, called acceptable] on a four-point scale, they’re going to need to be debriefed because they’re missing something. That is only acceptable if we debrief to bring them up to 100 percent performance. [Scoring 1, unsatisfactory] on a procedure validation [requires] them to self-discover whatever errors they made using their manual or the video library.” Any issues not covered there are addressed by instructor debriefings.
“What we are hearing [most] is that the flight attendants come away feeling more self-confident of their skills,” she added. “When they do make an error and correct [themselves] they say, ‘I won’t ever forget that again.’” Flight attendants who fail a procedure validation receive four hours of remediation training and enter a special tracking process involving retesting at six-month intervals.
Merging Cabin Expertise
Integrating cabin crewmembers during the merger of Southwest Airlines and AirTran Airways began by placing a conceptual partition between the two groups, then laying requirements for members of both groups to cross it only under specified conditions. In March, the FAA authorized operation of both airlines under the Southwest air operating certificate.
“One of the issues was new aircraft types: The Boeing 737-800 from the Southwest side being introduced in the AirTran fleet and the 717 being introduced across the partition into the Southwest fleet,” said Larry Parrigin, manager of curriculum and program development, Southwest Airlines. “Extended overwater flights and international operations were something new for Southwest Airlines.” AirTran crews also had a centralized training structure in which all flight attendants traveled to Atlanta for training. Southwest Airlines has a decentralized training structure.
“The basic operational language also was different … such as forward entry door versus L1 door,” said Paul Kirkley, manager in-flight training, AirTran Airways. Some differences thought to be simple, such as different cabin lighting settings, also took unexpected effort to adopt, he said.
Some issues did not become apparent until the merging of flight attendant manuals. “It will take about 2 1/2 years to get everyone moved over from the AirTran side to the Southwest side,” Kirkley said. So AirTran gradually has been incorporating Southwest material into its manual revision cycle.
For AirTran flight attendants, “we are reducing our initial training program down to the essentials,” Parrigin said. “We are looking at the transition training as an extended recurrent training course for them.” Essentially, procedures for in-flight emergency situations such as fire fighting, cabin decompression and turbulence were found to have relatively few differences. “The major differences are in our [normal] daily operational details,” he said.
One example of a change with safety implications has been the introduction of cart service aboard Southwest 737-800s, which involves specific risks for the cart-inexperienced Southwest flight attendants and different risks for AirTran flight attendants who have extensive cart experience — but not aboard this aircraft type.
The FAA-approved integration training covers “all of our operational differences and also fulfills the requirement for annual recurrent training, so it will reset the recurrent training clock,” Kirkley said. “There will more training for Southwest flight attendants than for the AirTran flight attendants [because of the initial overwater training].”
In the merger of US Airways and America West, the US Airways SMS had not been implemented fully when the company followed its processes to mitigate anticipated risks of the changes involved, said Stephen Howell, director in-flight services training, US Airways.
An SMS better enables airlines to make hard choices about jettisoning familiar safety procedures while integrating disparate cabin crews. “Airlines can try to [either subjectively select] or to dig very deeply from a [safety] data perspective to determine which procedures would be most effective, and would be able to help to successfully merge operations,” Howell said. “Once we establish which policies and procedures to choose, we have to mitigate the risks associated with them. For example, [proposing] carts on the 737-800 [implies willingness to] mitigate the risks of doing so.”
An SMS can provide confidence in a specific system’s robustness before a system failure occurs. “It is very important, especially if you are merging training cultures of airlines, to take a look at what could potentially go wrong [and apply formal] risk controls with a structured safety-assurance process,” he said.
US Airways SMS processes were applied, for example, prior to the decision to introduce a red strap aboard the company’s Airbus fleet as a visual deterrent to flight attendants who might inadvertently grab the door control handle instead of the arming lever, which is in close proximity. In 2011, after this initiative was put in place, only one of eight inadvertent slide deployments occurred aboard this Airbus fleet, and that event involved an overwing exit, not a main cabin door.
Grab Your Flashlight
The flexibility of AQP also enhanced safety during the Delta Air Lines–Northwest Airlines merger, said Michelle Farkas, general manager, advanced qualification program, Delta Air Lines. She credits AQP for the new opportunity to divide associated training into separate parts called integration qualification and aircraft qualification. On May 1, 20,000 flight attendants from both pre-merger airlines were scheduled to begin flying together under one set of work rules.
These parts enabled the pre-merger Northwest flight attendant group to be indoctrinated onto the Delta air operating certificate in three days, and then an approximately three-day aircraft qualification enabled pre-merger Northwest flight attendants to become qualified on Delta aircraft and pre-merger Delta flight attendants to become qualified on pre-merger Northwest aircraft. Of nine aircraft types, only the 757 was common to both pre-merger airline fleets.
“As soon as we got our single operating certificate in 2010, we were told that we needed to hire 1,200 more flight attendants,” Farkas said. “So the next [step was to] transition our initial training into AQP. Training initial hire flight attendants under AQP gives them a lot of ‘light bulb moments’ [that is, realizing newfound proficiency in skills and procedures].”
Basically, the conventional Northwest program benefited from being brought into the Delta AQP. “By starting to introduce scenario-based training into annual recurrent training, Northwest really set the tone for becoming fully integrated into Delta,” Farkas said. “There were no crazy, all-of-a-sudden changes to the training program or training philosophy for the Northwest flight attendants.”
Techniques to smooth this integration included gap analysis and reverse gap analysis in comparing all cabin safety policies and procedures, and an “adopt-and-go” methodology of choosing, wherever safe and feasible, either an entire Delta procedure or an entire Northwest procedure instead of creating hybrid procedures.
One challenging hybrid procedure emerged from a disconnect between the two flight attendant groups. “The pre-merger Delta philosophy was that, when it is time to conduct an evacuation, [and after activating] the emergency light switch, automatically grab your flashlight,” Farkas said. “The pre-merger Northwest philosophy was ‘Be situationally aware — that is, if you need the flashlight, grab it and go.’” This difference became apparent in an AQP data analysis showing an unusually large percentage of procedural deviation codes among pre-merger Northwest flight attendants when they performed evacuation drills.
“So things taught in initial training are not so obvious when conducting a merger,” she recalled. “During our merger, we were looking at current policies and procedures [focusing on issues such as cabin] door and window operations,” she said. During the ensuing debate over flashlights, mini-evacuation demonstrations were conducted on three Northwest aircraft types — before their transfer to the Delta air operating certificate — and the Delta cabin safety specialists noted how retrieving flashlights could consume seconds of the nominal 15-second timeframe to open 50 percent of the floor-level exits and have 50 percent of the exit slides ready for use, especially when deploying the upper deck slide of a 747.
Policy, procedures and training specialists from Delta, the FAA and Northwest concurred on a policy basing flashlight retrieval on situational awareness, but with no one penalized during performance demonstrations either for automatically grabbing the flashlight or for not grabbing the flashlight.