Airline pilot training philosophy and its impact on air safety!

Air disasters are rightly a subject of great concern despite the fact that aviation accidents are at an all time low, making air travel the safest mode of transport. Compared to figures for accident rates for western-built jets, in 1970, accidents have decreased from 8,4 hull loss rate per million of flights to 0,37 in 2014. These numbers are the result of the highest standards of excellence being the norm in the aviation industry as it actively pursues the reduction of accident rates, or does it?


On the other hand, and despite the financial and economical crisis affecting the industry as a whole, the aviation sector is experiencing a tremendous growth. If we look at the world aircraft fleet forecast expansion in the next 15 years we can see that Boeing and Airbus, the two main aircraft manufacturers, plan to double their aircraft production by 2030 to cope with the demand. The main drivers of this situation are the huge development of low cost carriers in the past 20 years, making air travel more accessible to lower income people and/or the rapid development of air transport industry development in countries with emerging economies. Now, this situation raises some questions: is this rapid growth compatible with air safety standards and objectives?


Simply looking at the statistics would give an unquestionable « Yes », as there has been a continuous improvement in aviation safety. However, If we consider the nature of the air accidents that have occurred in the last few years we can observe similarities amongst them, namely, loss of control of the aircraft while the crew was facing an unexpected situation. The pilots became unable to reproduce basic airman behavior and lost control of the aircraft because their brains were overloaded by the demands of managing an unexpected and sometimes complex situation. This is precisely why one should pose the question « Why are these experienced pilots making basic mistakes, like loss of airspeed control, that any novice pilot could avoid? » and also «Why is this phenomena present in almost all of the recent airplanes crashes? »


The answer is complex as one situation differs from the other, however we are intuitively guided to what we call a lack of basic airmanship, which is define as being a combination of flying skills, cognitive skills, experience, good judgment and some amount of resilience in order to cope with unexpected and complex situations. Actually, we need to progress carefully in order not to get confuse between the visible part of the iceberg - human error - and the real root of the problem: basic airline pilot training philosophy.  Actually, airline pilot training methods and philosophy have drastically changed since the eighties for many reasons. Technological progress, fly-by-wire introduction and, progressive dominance of automation against manual flight. 


There is no doubt that all these new concepts and new technology are enhancing flight safety, but the idea that we don’t need aviators to fly these new aircraft anymore seems to be ever more present. We’d just need to produce « obedient button pushers » who, with the help of technology can fly from A to B, in accordance to the aircraft flight manual; let’s call them « aircraft operators » Well, this is true as long as these « system operators » don’t have to face with some unexpected events or situations, like avoiding thunderstorms, managing a « non precision approach », after a long night flight, in marginal conditions, ending sometimes with a visual approach on a different runway than foreseen or prepared for. 


The European Aviation Safety Agency, and the Airline industry as a whole, became aware of the problem and the need to revise airline pilot training program philosophy. Consequently, several interesting and ambitious initiatives have emerged. Unfortunately, this proactive strategy however, flaws two fundamental characteristics that may well have an impact on air safety for decades ahead.The first one concerns the scope of the corrective actions to the extent that they relate exclusively to  «recurrent training », without mentioning or questioning any of the fundamentals of airline pilot training philosophy. Secondly, EASA’s strategy is based on a methodological reductionism which makes a clear separation between "economical efficiency" and "risk management". This massive hypothesis has a direct consequence which is a lexicographic priority to economical efficiency against air safety.


Actually, airline pilot training, mostly privately financed nowadays, has become a self driven market inside the global aviation market place. This situation has a significant advantage which is precisely to allow a quicker response to fluctuations in the supply and demand chain. As a matter of fact, the airline pilot training model is delivering «aircraft operators » rather than aviators. The question is then: would there be any generic link between the accidents in question and the airline pilot training paradigm, and, in which case, is the new strategy likely to tackle this potentially dangerous evolution? 


Statistical data, no matter how reassuring they may appear, send a counterproductive signal making believe to almost all the concerned parties, in particular, passengers, that risk management - a cornerstone of air safety - is on the right track. The nature of recent accidents nature and analysis of circumstances call for an urgent need to review in depth basic airline pilot training philosophy. That’s why any air safety management strategy that ignores this systemic threat, can never claim to have done everything possible to tackle this risk.