Line checks from the third seat

Back in 2008, a change crept into EU-OPs. It required that the person conducting the “line check … shall occupy an observer’s seat where installed”. It seems that many operators didn’t notice the change and carried on doing line checks with the check captain in one of the operating seats. This continues to provide easy pickings for inspectors during regulatory audits. A comparison of training records against crewing records will quickly show if only two pilots were on board when a line-check was conducted, producing a level 2 finding with minimal effort.

There are several reasons why an operator would prefer to ignore this requirement. The most obvious is cost (two pilots are cheaper than three). Some business-jet operators report that their VIP passengers don’t like having extra pilots on board. On many aircraft types, the observer’s seat is very uncomfortable (I thought the B737 was bad until I went on an HS125!). The benefit of conducting the line check from the observer’s seat is that it allows the check captain to assess how effectively the crew work as a team. This assessment needs to be conducted using a proper methodology, where the check captain looks out for specific behaviours that provide evidence of the presence (or absence) of specific non-technical skills; hence the requirement for the line-check captain to be trained in the assessment of CRM and for the operator to have a documented ‘behavioural marker system’ (such as notechs). For there to be any value to this CRM assessment, there also needs to be some feedback to the crewmembers, i.e. a debriefing. A line-check without a debrief is an expensive box-ticking exercise.

Some operators have found ways of mitigating the potential costs of line checks. Where extra crew are carried to allow for in-flight rest, then the check-captain can fulfil the dual roles of checker and relief pilot, providing that he/she only assesses CRM during briefings and “those phases where he/she occupies the observer’s seat”. There is also a provision that allows two crew to be checked on a single sector provided that “each pilot performs both flying and monitoring duties on each sector”. Combining these two provisions means that one check captain can check four pilots on two sectors without carrying extra crew. Another way to avoid the requirement to conduct the check from the observer’s seat is to remove the observer’s seat. The requirement says “where installed”.

When the Air Operations regulation was introduced in 2016, the situation changed slightly. EU-OPs contained this provision in ‘hard law” (appendix 1 to OPs 1.965); now, the requirement is in ‘soft law’ (acceptable means of compliance). This opens up the possibility of applying to the competent authority for an alternative means of compliance (AltMoC). For an AltMoC to be approved, an operator would need to demonstrate that the intention of the implementing rule would be met and provide a risk assessment showing that an equivalent level of safety (to the AMC) was achieved. Showing this equivalent level of safety would not be trivial; an operator would need to find another way of assessing CRM in an operational environment. Perhaps new technologies will help (cameras on the flight deck?), or maybe we can explain to those VIP passengers that the extra pilot will be able to pour their champagne in the cruise.

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