In November 2006, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) introduced the first new license in more than 40 years for pilots of commercial transport jets. The multi-crew pilot license, or MPL, takes zero-time students to the right seat of an advanced airliner, embedding the multi-crew environment, threat and error management, human factors awareness and airline-specific standard operating procedures throughout the training program.
Today, roughly five years after initial beta-test programs commenced, more than 1,000 MPL license holders are flying worldwide.
The MPL came about following an ICAO Flight Crew Licensing and Training Panel (FCLTP) review of ICAO Annex 1 — Personnel Licensing. From 2002–2005, the panel examined established training paths to the right seat of an airliner with a view to understanding whether those paths were still effective and relevant in light of the significant advances in technology and the increased complexities of the pilot work environment that had evolved over the previous 30 years. The review determined that these changes had rendered many aspects of traditional programs outdated, such as the emphasis on solo operations, individual skills and time-building in single-engine aircraft. As ICAO told AeroSafety World, “Ab initio cadet training approaches for airline programs were becoming out of date and no longer applicable to the quality and skill sets that airlines were striving to see in their pilot recruits.”
In response, the FCLTP created the MPL program to focus on building competency in a multi-crew environment, leveraging advanced training devices to develop the technical proficiency to safely operate new-generation passenger jets in high-altitude operations.
As of April 2013, ICAO figures show that approximately 50 states have implemented an MPL approach, with 14 having current training programs. Those 14 include Austria, China (mainland and Hong Kong), Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, UAE and the U.K. There now are 20 approved training organizations (ATO) conducting MPL courses globally. To date, roughly 1,100 students have graduated from the MPL program and about 1,500 students are enrolled worldwide.
The new license encapsulates ICAO’s move from a prescriptive flight-hour requirement to competency-based training. This is a massive shift in training philosophy: Where traditional training is measured in units of time, competency-based training is measured in achievement of learning objectives.
ICAO Doc 9868 (Procedures for Air Navigation Services — Training) defines competency as the combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes required to perform a task to a prescribed standard. Therefore, MPL training does not measure training hours as the primary criterion, but uses measurable, defined performance criteria. This approach requires targeted competencies to be continuously measured throughout the course — a dramatic departure from traditional programs in which the determination of competence rests on oral, written and flight tests at the end of a fixed amount of training time.
Nick Taylor, member of the ATO/MPL Implementation Team at Transport Canada, explained in ICAO’s inaugural Training Report (Volume 1, July/August 2011): “In a competency-based approach for an MPL, performance benchmarks are developed against a detailed job task analysis, partially specific to each air carrier. Continuous assessment of the trainees against these established baselines moves them in a direct line towards the end goal: the right-seat job. It bypasses other, traditional skill assessments such as those of a private pilot or a commercial pilot in single-crew operations.”
Four Phases of Training
The multi-crew pilot license training program takes place in four phases. It requires a minimum of 240 hours of training, including pilot flying (PF) and pilot not flying (PNF), although those hours are not the primary measure of success. MPL course lengths range from 14 to 36 months, with a 21.5-month average, according to IATA. The basic four-phase framework includes:
Phase 1 (Core): Basic single-engine pilot training.
Phase 2 (Basic): Introduction of multi-crew operations and instrument flight.
Phase 3 (Intermediate): Application of multi-crew operations in a high-performance, multi-engine turbine aircraft.
Phase 4 (Advanced): Type rating training within an airline-oriented environment.
So rather than a single, end-of-course exam, competency measurement is continuous. For instance, CAE, a global provider of integrated training solutions for civil aviation and defense forces, uses 37 “testing gates” throughout its MPL programs, said Gary Morrison, CAE’s head of U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations Part 121, MPL and ab initio initiatives for the Americas. “To pass from one phase to the next, a level of competency is defined and when the student meets it, he or she is passed on to the next phase,” he said. “We track every individual’s performance on all elements of each task.”
“MPL is designed in such a way as to get continual feedback on the validity of the instructors and students. It’s like a good ISO [International Organization for Standardization] system,” said Rudy Toering, vice president business development at FlightPath International, a global training firm for flight, cabin and aircraft maintenance personnel. “Because of all the quizzes, exams and other testing, both academic and flight, students have many milestones they must continually pass to move on.”
In addition to the competency-based training approach, there are several other fundamental differences between the MPL and a traditional commercial pilot license (CPL) training program. For starters, the MPL includes a rigorous candidate selection process aimed at identifying those most likely to complete the program with a high degree of success. These candidates are sponsored by a collaborating airline. Unlike CPL programs, there are no “independent” MPL courses, as the advanced training phase is done in accordance with a participating airline’s operating procedures. The airline mentors the student and hires him or her upon successful graduation.
The MPL additionally acknowledges the increasing significance of human factors in aviation safety and wraps these concepts into training from start to finish. In a document released in September 2011, “Guidance Material and Best Practices for MPL Implementation,” the International Air Transport Association (IATA) observed, “The majority of incidents and accidents in civil aviation are still caused by human factors such as a lack of interpersonal skills (communication, leadership and teamwork), workload management, situational awareness, and structured decision making. MPL requires full-time embedded (rather than add-on) crew resource management (CRM) and threat and error management (TEM) training.”
Another major difference between the MPL and CPL is the qualification and relevant experience requirements of MPL instructors. FlightPath International’s Toering points to instructor quality as a distinguishing element of the MPL. “In a normal CPL program, your better students become instructors so you’ve got a younger pilot building time in the instructor position,” said Toering. “That is not the case in the MPL. All our instructors hold multiple ratings, are Boeing 737NG-qualified commercial pilots, they all have had extensive careers in the airline business, and they understand the requirements.”
FlightPath International is working with Ethiopian Airlines to train the carrier’s future copilots in an MPL program. The program launched in late 2011 with 48 students beginning on multiple dates. As of April 2013, an initial group of 14 were on track to receive their MPLs at the end of that month and from there proceed to base training and initial operating experience (IOE). Through its agreement with the carrier, FlightPath will gradually transfer the program to the airline; by the end of 2013, Ethiopian Airlines will manage and run its MPL program and FlightPath will step into a quality-management role. Toering said his company is talking with several other African carriers about creating similar programs that would ultimately transition operation of MPL training to the airline.
A final difference: The MPL makes far more extensive use of simulators than traditional CPL programs, which tend to build time in progressively more complex aircraft. Peter Wolfe, executive director of the Professional Aviation Board of Certification (PABC), said that simulation, in his opinion, is the biggest difference between the MPL and other ab initio training programs. “MPL is designed to make maximum use of simulation and training devices because they provide the ideal teaching and learning environment,” said Wolfe. “They provide a high degree of control and predictability, efficiency and exposure to malfunctions and threats you can’t risk encountering in an airplane.”
As of January 2013, MPL program flying training averaged 284 hours, according to IATA figures. The vast majority of that time — 185 hours, average — was completed in flight simulation training devices (FSTDs).
Singapore provides a typical example. At the first meeting of the Regional Aviation Safety Group — Asia and Pacific Regions, held in October 2011, the government of Singapore presented an overview of its implementation of the MPL in Singapore. Under the oversight of an MPL Working Group chaired by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and comprising representatives from ST Aerospace Academy, the ATO, and participating operator Tiger Airways Singapore Pte. Ltd., an MPL trial began in December 2009 and concluded in August 2011. After phase 1 training in a single-engine airplane, the next time students came in contact with an actual airplane was toward the end of phase 4, when they conducted six takeoffs and landings. “This approach was consistent with the MPL philosophy of emphasizing training in FSTDs, given that training in high fidelity simulators would provide the same benefit as flying actual aircraft for training multi-crew operations,” Singapore officials reported. MPL trainees in the Singapore test completed, on average, 86 hours in actual aircraft and 219 hours in FSTDs for a total of 305 hours.
Is It Working?
Like any radical new initiative, particularly in the slow-to-change world of aviation, the MPL has its skeptics, with the majority of the world taking a wait-and-see approach. As of today, just 7 percent of the 190 ICAO contracting states have current MPL training programs.
Detractors argue there are too few training hours in light aircraft (proponents counter that there are more airline-focused, multi-crew environment, advanced-airliner training hours in the MPL than in a CPL); that the license is too limiting as it only permits the bearer to fly as copilot of a multi-engine, turbine-powered, pressurized airplane certified to be operated by two or more pilots; and that the MPL was created to fast-track zero-time students into the right seat of an airliner to address the looming pilot shortage (it was not; work on the MPL began in 2002, in the post-9/11 days of widespread pilot furloughs).
Observers also note that most airline transport pilot (ATP)-level exams fail to ensure that graduates understand and have retained the knowledge they are expected to have acquired from MPL courses — a gap PABC is working to close. “With the exception of Transport Canada, there are no ATP-level exams that fully and effectively test the knowledge of MPL candidates,” PABC’s Wolfe explained. “Industry wants a good ATP-level test, but most of the exams in use today have failed to keep up with industry changes and are badly compromised.” PABC’s Global Professional Pilot Certification exam, currently in development, “will assess pilots’ recollection of expected information and their ability to apply it in dealing with a variety of generic operational situations,” Wolfe said.
Regulatory resistance is another roadblock for MPL. National aviation authorities strongly protect their regulations, as they follow exhaustive study and extensive investments of time and money. For instance, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration told AeroSafety World that while it has been involved in discussions with ICAO and the international community about MPL, it is not actively pursuing development of an MPL because it would require significant changes in the training and hiring practices of U.S. air carriers.
Finally, there is a sense in the industry that current programs are working, so it makes no sense to undergo the massive investment needed to change them. Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), for instance, established an industry project team in 2007 to advise on the implementation of the MPL. It conducted a proof of concept trial in Brisbane with six airline cadets who began the MPL course in March 2007 and completed it in December 2008. All cadets are currently flying as Boeing 737 first officers with their sponsoring airlines. While the program was successful and CASA has the rules and training standards in place for training organizations to run an MPL program, no organizations have yet implemented it. “We were keen,” observed a CASA spokesman, “but the industry was not.”
Still, initial results on MPL are encouraging. Dieter Harms, chief executive officer of Harms Aviation Training Consulting Associates, has worked for IATA since 2007 as a senior adviser in the IATA Training and Qualification Initiative and as a consultant for international training providers and airlines on MPL implementation. He also serves as a member of the European Aviation Safety Agency MPL Advisory Board. In these roles, Harms is in contact with airlines that are applying the MPL. He says that while no scientific evaluation of feedback from IOE has been conducted, operators tell him “the performance of the MPL graduates is throughout positive, compared to students of traditional CPL programs,” said Harms.
In its October 2011 report, Singapore concluded, “The fundamentals underpinning the MPL are sound and robust. The training approach leverages the use of modern training devices and is purpose-oriented toward the end objective of having the pilots operate in multi-crew airline operations. It also offers the potential to reduce the duration and cost of pilot training in the long term through more airline-type training. Singapore is therefore supportive of the MPL as a way forward to train future airline pilots in a more effective and efficient manner.”
AirAsia expressed similar views. In February 2010, training firm CAE, under the regulatory guidance of Transport Canada and in cooperation with AirAsia and the Department of Civil Aviation Malaysia, ran a test program for 12 cadets to become first officers on the Airbus A320 for AirAsia. At the end of the intermediate phase, in March 2011, CAE announced that each of the 12 cadets tested to ICAO Level 6 (Expert) standard in an exam administered by Canadian examiners at CAE SimuFlite in Dallas. ICAO minimum guidelines require a Level 4 competency.
All 12 cadets graduated on schedule in May 2011 and proceeded to AirAsia for base training and IOE. A second class of 12 students graduated in summer 2012.
In February 2012, announcing a five-year contract with CAE to train more than 200 additional new AirAsia A320 first officers in an MPL program, AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes observed, “We have seen firsthand in our flight operations that [the CAE MPL program] is producing the next generation of pilots who will fly safely and efficiently.”
In addition to AirAsia, CAE currently has MPL programs with Dragonair, easyJet and flybe. More than 30 students are enrolled today in CAE MPL programs. To date, its MPL course completion rate is 100 percent, compared to an approximately 97 percent completion rate through its traditional CPL programs.
The MPL program remains under intense scrutiny — perhaps most of all by those who have created it. When it was launched in 2006, ICAO committed to a review of concept once the program was under way. As a follow-up, ICAO will be holding an MPL Symposium on Dec. 10–12, 2013, with topics including global status of MPL implementation as well as MPL successes and challenges. The intended outcome is the initial identification of a work program to improve on the existing ICAO standards and MPL guidance. During the symposium, ICAO will present the results of a new proof-of-concept study. The symposium will also provide an important experience-sharing opportunity for rulemaking authorities, airline training organizations, international organizations and other stakeholders.
Heather Baldwin is a Phoenix, Arizona-based freelance writer. A pilot and former U.S. Army officer, she writes regularly about aviation, military issues and topics related to management and workplace performance.