Describing their preparations for the Aug. 1, 2013, effective date of new certification and qualification requirements for airline first officers in the United States, several training specialists from the country’s regional airlines say that identifying and developing essential attributes of professionalism in new-hire pilots also is critical. In fact, to some, it’s as important as checking off such required-qualification boxes as age (23), license (airline transport pilot [ATP] certificate) and minimum total flight hours (1,500). The final rule contains a few exceptions and other details (see “Final Rule”).
This prioritization stems from lessons from recent experiences working with the cohort of pilots just entering this industry segment, these specialists told the World Aviation Training Conference and Tradeshow (WATS 2013) in Orlando, Florida, U.S., in April.
By their accounts, applicants and new-hire pilots at regional airlines can anticipate a demanding and rewarding career, but also one that can be derailed by mismatched attitudes and unprofessional behavior. Experience reminds all concerned what is at stake, given that a regional airline accident can have pervasive and lasting consequences, they said.
“We expect to see demand for air travel continue to increase over the next 20 years,” said John Allen, director, Flight Standards Service, U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), forecasting a need for 69,000 new pilots between 2012 and 2031. “This growth, which will see U.S. airlines alone carry a billion passengers a year within the next decade, ironically coincides with circumstances that could result in a serious shortage in the skilled labor — pilots and aviation maintenance technicians — needed to operate this nation’s commercial aviation system.”
One significant short-term factor in this projection is revised pilot flight and duty time limitations, which Scott Foose, senior vice president, operations safety, Regional Airline Association (RAA), estimated would prompt nearly all air carriers to expand their pilot workforce by 3 to 5 percent and for regional airlines to expand their pilot workforce by 7 to 10 percent.
Moreover, major airlines anticipate that, in this context, they also will have to select and indoctrinate many pilots who lack prior airline or military experience. “We ultimately are liable at the major airlines to be looking at the entry-level pilots, [which] we’ve never done before,” said Paul Railsback, a captain and director of operations, Airlines for America. “Typically, we hire pilots with 3,000 to 4,000 hours of flight time. It’s certainly possible over the next five to 10 years that we will be hiring pilots [who] come from the same pool that the regional airlines are hiring from — that is, instructors at universities. So it’s going to totally have to change our perceptions and perspectives about training and, in particular, the need for the initial selection and the initial checking and qualifications.”
Several regional airline pilot selection and training departments have been concerned by discrepancies they have seen recently between the qualifications presented by applicants on paper and their attitudes/behavior, mastery of knowledge and simulator performance. Such anecdotal deficiencies are no reflection on the typical pilots hired after demonstrating the requisite knowledge, skills and attitude, training specialists said. But the result, in some cases, has been an unfavorable fluctuation in the percentage of applicants hired, said Jim Winkley, a captain and vice president of flight operations, American Eagle Airlines.
“We are seeing a lot of people out there that have the 1,500 hours and numerous FAA check ride [failures undisclosed] to us [as well as] a lot of, believe it or not, criminal background issues,” he said. “We go through the process of the initial background check, invite [applicants] for the interviews, put them on a flight, and the day of the interview, they just don’t show up — no phone call. … We’ve never seen that in the past.” Some ostensibly well-qualified applicants evaluated recently also have demonstrated performance deficiencies distinct from the long-term patterns of variation in rates of successful completion of initial training.
“Training programs need to continue to prepare students to be successful regional airline aviators,” Winkley said. “We are starting to see a lot of automation reliance in our new hires. Some basic airman skills are weak, basic stick-and-rudder stuff. They’re all used to these glass cockpits, the fancy airplanes. When we start shutting down systems on them, they aren’t reverting to basic skills.”
Soft Professional Attributes
Priority Training Initiatives in 2013 for U.S. Regional Airline Pilots
- Balancing aircraft automation with piloting fundamentals
- Deploying optimized-profile descents through industry collaboration
- Enhancing fuel-management programs
- Increasing use of well-managed data from safety programs
- Expanding threat-and-error management training
- Training professionalism
Paul Preidecker, captain and chief flight instructor, Air Wisconsin Airlines, and chairman of the RAA’s Flight Training Committee, said he considers such performance evidence of “under-emphasis on fundamentals” rather than over-reliance on aircraft automation. Regional airlines also are now well positioned to adapt the FAA’s advanced qualification program (AQP) to initial training and to every stage of a pilot’s career; this trend ideally will morph into individually tailored performance assessment and training, he said. Nevertheless, he concurred with some of the present concerns.
“From my experience in the interview process, we do have people that come to us who are missing some of the basics in terms of instrument knowledge, instrument procedures,” Preidecker said. “They can’t read a METAR [scheduled hourly weather observation data] without an app on their iPhone. I get all that, but we don’t do that in the airplane. We need people to read METARs on the paperwork as we hand it to them. So as much as I love automation, … we do have a problem in getting people back to the fundamental skills. … I tell our instructors at our training center that they are not responsible for staffing the airline — they’re responsible for training safe pilots.”
Preidecker said that differences of opinion over specific pilot training to instill professionalism have surfaced at a number of aviation industry meetings, beginning with a 2010 public forum held by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (ASW, 6/10, p. 24). The ensuing discussions have been framed by results of investigations of accidents and incidents, and by the analysis of de-identified flight operations and training data.
“[Professionalism] really is not about showing up rested for duty,” he said. “Professionalism to me is the umbrella that drives everything that we do for safety. And as training professionals, that should be our main interest. If we dig down a little bit deeper and ask, ‘Well, what is it that drives professionalism?’ I think it’s pride in what we do … pride in the accomplishment, in how we achieve things. … We like going from Point A to Point B and doing that as well as we can … on a particular flight or a particular mission. The pilot is there, in my mind, to provide accountability and responsibility.”
Early-career professionalism may provide a layer of defense given that the most dedicated pilots can “get caught up in the day-to-day fog of flying and some of the hassles of our day-to-day life,” he added.
Many regional airlines have accepted the challenge of enhancing professionalism training throughout their pilot work groups and other employee work groups, covering subjects such as personal attitudes, discipline and responsibility that affect safe performance.
“We are very good at doing the hard-skills part,” Preidecker said. “We can put people in the simulator. We can put people in ground school. We can train the technical aspects of how to do the pilot part. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy to train what we would call the intangibles or soft skills — but those are probably the most important because if some of those skills are not present, the tangible kinds of technical skills might not matter.
“We understand that in a flight environment, nothing’s ever perfect. But the realization that nothing’s ever perfect doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to learn from our mistakes and try to do better.”
A popular conceptualization within the industry is that “professional” pilots consistently do the right thing even when they are not being watched. But in reality, airline pilots now receive more scrutiny than ever through direct observations, flight operations data analysis and other safety programs. “So I prefer to say that a professional pilot knows to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Several factors known to interfere with a pilot’s intent to behave professionally have come to be called detractors in some risk analyses. Two examples of detractors identified include fatigue and automation-induced complacency.
“In the regional world, we’re quite used to [flying] multiple segments into the same airport, and, as a result of that, sometimes comes what we call repetition-induced complacency,” he said.
One of the aviation industry’s habits in addressing deviations from norms of individual behavior has been to rewrite or add written procedures, which actually can be counterproductive to instilling professionalism. “The more procedures we write, the less compliance we’re going to have,” Preidecker said. “We’re always trying to strike a balance in what’s an appropriate procedure … even something as simple as do we put cell phones on the checklist [so pilots] turn them off. We finally acquiesced and decided to put [that item] on there as a simple reminder of the discipline you might need to shut off the PEDs [portable electronic devices]. The slippery slope on that is that companies can write procedures and procedures, and pretty soon have mutinous pilots and less and less compliance.”
No airline provides everything required to instill professionalism, which some consider to involve a lifetime’s worth of experiences and choices, but airlines can reinforce professionalism every day. “The pilot has to be on board, and we have to encourage good behavior and ensure that people have a sense of pride in what they do,” he said. “On the subject, for example, of unstabilized approaches, if one of our crews sends in an irregularity report and says something like ‘Approach became unstabilized; I decided to go around,’ they get a thank-you note from [Air Wisconsin] because we want to thank them for doing the right thing.
“We need to address this as a generational thing because I keep hearing about the Millennials … generation [or Generation Y; ASW, 8/12, p. 25). They want to be pilots, and as part of their training, we can integrate professionalism into the profession and, overall, improve the safety of what we are doing.”
Absent Without Leave
Darrin Greubel, a captain and manager line operations, ExpressJet Airlines, said that although the company policy allows hiring 23-year-old pilots who have 1,500 hours of flight time and have passed the FAA ATP written examination, a shortage actually exists of 1,500-hour pilots who can meet the company’s own standards and qualifications.
“Just the other day, we had five interviews scheduled and one [candidate] showed up,” he said, citing one example of a nascent trend. “That is pretty traumatic. The sad thing is some of those no-shows won’t even give us a courtesy call … after we go through the process of arranging travel and so forth. … It really does burn a bridge. … This is one [area of pilot education] where we can start going back to professionalism and attitude, and the need for simple phone calls and communication.” The implication is that such behavior is uncharacteristic of people selected in the past for such high-criticality safety positions.
Moreover, subsequent outreach efforts and attempts to reschedule these pilots have been about 99 percent unproductive. Information from the remainder indicates that some simply had accepted employment from another regional airline, and some said they actually were not ready or able to make a decision about committing to the next step in the candidate-assessment process, Greubel said. “Most do not communicate with us … probably because of fear that if they tell us something … we may go and try to contact the carrier that they’re going to and say something, which we never do,” he said.
The company’s initial screening and background checks also have identified an increasing number of applicants who have not flown for 12 to 36 months, and pilots who have failed to disclose FAA enforcement actions for regulatory violations, motor vehicle traffic violations, records of driving motor vehicles under the influence of intoxicants, and records of criminal activity, Greubel said. Termination by previous aviation employers often cannot be explained credibly by the applicants, he said.
He cited another possible safety-culture clash: “We do see attitudes [among some pilots who] come in here right now that ‘Here’s what you guys owe me. What will you do for me?’”
Alison Donway, a captain and director of flight operations, Horizon Air, added that — beyond safety — inappropriate or unsafe behavior by a regional airline pilot during flight operations may reinforce negative stereotypes and harm the reputation of the business.
“We have professional behavior issues that are related to the Gen Y/Millennial issue, and that has been a theme through all these presentations,” she said. “That is a reality that we cannot ignore. Cell phone use — I think it was about four years ago we had a customer report to our customer care hotline observing a first officer conduct the entire preflight exterior inspection on the phone. That was a bad choice, a bad professional choice. … We put a procedure in place defining when cell phone use was acceptable or not.”
An aviation official also noted the multi-dimensional challenge of identifying the safety-conscious individuals most likely to become successful regional airline pilots — beyond determining that they meet the new minimum standards. John Duncan, deputy director, flight standards policy oversight, FAA, noted, “Some of what you’ve heard basically amounts to remedial training at the [Part] 121 [air carrier] level, and that’s just not appropriate. We ought to be creating pilot applicants who are prepared to move into that next level of training, and to move forward from there.”
An aviation rulemaking committee on pilot test standards, meanwhile, has continued the FAA’s ongoing process of improving professional pilot training requirements in ways that allow more flexibility and AQP-like characteristics at all career stages, he said.