How a data-driven approach to pilot training will make aviation safer while saving airlines money

Source: Artificial Intelligence on Medium

For decades, the aviation industry has made use of sensors and data to make flying safer for everyone. Many complex systems aboard aircraft use data to see through clouds, navigate, avoid collisions, and provide a smooth journey to passengers. Data from the Quick Access Recorder gets downloaded and analyzed to make flying safer and more efficient. And in the worst case scenarios, black boxes help us understand want went wrong and how we can avoid disaster in the future.

Data from aircraft are starting to inform how pilots themselves are trained. For instance, decisions about pitch and throttle settings during the takeoff and climb can have a huge effect on overall fuel burn, which has an impact on both the environment and the economics of the airline.

But there is a larger revolution happening in training, also involving data. While the idea of EBT is generally to exploit operations data to improve pilot training, the idea of competency-based training (CBT) is to exploit observations about the individual pilot’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes to tailor the training to the individual needs of the pilot.

At Paladin AI, we call this approach adaptive training, because every person learns at a different rate and comes with different experiences and background. A one-size-fits-all approach was the default in the past, but technology is enabling more personalized approaches. And the benefits could be significant.

In this piece, we’ll be describing how adaptive training could significantly improve the economics of pilot training in ways that benefit everyone.

Photo by Shandell Venegas on Unsplash

The various kinds of pilot training

Let’s quickly recap how pilots are trained. When first starting out, the prospective pilot does their ab initio training (Latin: “from the start”). This is typically done at a dedicated flight school or at a college/university. There are thousands of flight schools all over the world, but most of them are private and the trainee is typically the one paying the tuition.

A pilot must be certified to fly a particular type of aircraft. Graduating from a flight school does not automatically qualify you to fly a commercial jet. The pilot must obtain an initial “type rating,” which qualifies them for a single type of aircraft. This also means that holding a type rating on an Airbus A320 does not qualify the pilot to fly a Boeing 747. If the airline wants the pilot to fly a different type of aircraft, the pilot must go through a “type conversion”.

Once employed by an airline, every pilot undergoes regular recurrent training on an annual basis. During recurrent training, the pilot travels to an approved training organization (ATO) where for several days they are subjected to a battery of exercises in a flight simulator to test and reinforce their knowledge and procedures. These grueling training sessions are supervised by a flight instructor, who must sign off on each pilot’s proficiency. Assuming they pass, the pilots return home and resume flying for their employer.

This is what a flight simulator looks like. Image by SuperJet International — Full Flight Simulator, CC BY-SA 2.0

The costs of training

It comes as no surprise that pilot training is expensive. To pass all ab initio training, from the private pilot’s license straight through to an Airline Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL) or equivalent, can cost the pilot as much as $250,000 on the high end. The whole process can also take years.

When it comes to obtaining new type ratings or going for recurrent training, it is the airline that is paying for training, and the costs are significant. The pilot must be taken “off the line”, then travel to the training center (which may be in another country or even on another continent), then spend up to a week on site, staying in hotels, before returning home.

There are many factors influencing cost, but recurrent training can cost as much as $20,000 per pilot per year. Large airlines have thousands of pilots and thus spend millions annually keeping them current. In order to help control costs, an airline may build or purchase a dedicated training organization. This only works for large airlines, who can maximize training center utilization. A single full flight simulator costs about $10 million. Smaller airlines usually engage third-party training centers.

By one EASA estimate, the total annual costs of recurrent training for a medium/large airline with 1000 pilots are approximately EUR 13.4 million (about $14.5 million USD).