A survey in October 2020 found that only 43% of airline pilots were employed and currently flying. 30% were unemployed, 17% furloughed and the remaining 10% were doing other work. Some of these pilots may end up working permanently in other roles or retiring but it’s reasonable to assume that most intend to return to fly for a living.
What training do grounded pilots need and will this result in a surge in demand for simulator time?
Pilots flying commercial air transport operations have to complete theoretical and practical recurrent training including a proficiency check every six months. If a pilot has been ‘grounded’ but still taking all the regular training and checking, then the only missing qualification might be ‘landing recency’. A pilot cannot operate unless he/she has carried out three take-offs and landings in the preceding 90 days. These take-offs and landings can be carried out in a flight simulator and typically take less than one hour for a crew of two pilots.
Missed recurrent training
If a pilot has missed some elements of recurrent training and checking, then the missed training needs to be completed before the pilot can fly again for the same operator (airline) on the same aircraft type. Much of the training is ‘ground school’ and can be completed remotely or using computer-based training.
If a pilot has missed one or more simulator sessions but still holds a valid type rating, he/she would need to complete training in a simulator including all of the items that would have been covered in the missed sessions and an ‘operator’s proficiency check’ (OPC). Some pilots may require additional training to reach the standard required to pass the OPC but, for most pilots, the simulator time required will be similar to that required for recurrent training, typically 8 hours over two days.
Expired type rating
Every 12 months recurrent checking includes a licence proficiency check (LPC) for revalidation of the type rating. If a pilot’s type rating has expired, then it can only be renewed after refresher training at an approved training organisation (ATO). This training is additional to the recurrent training for the operator (airline). Some airlines have their own ATOs so the additional training can be provided during the same simulator sessions as recurrent training and the LPC for type rating renewal can be combined with the airline’s OPC.
If a pilot is not going to return to work for the same operator, then much of the recurrent training and checking described above isn’t required. When recruiting, most airlines will prefer pilots with a valid type rating, so pilots are well advised to keep their type ratings valid. The minimum requirement to maintain a valid type rating is a licence proficiency check (LPC) on a flight simulator every 12 months. If a pilot hasn’t flown for a while, then it may be prudent to arrange for a couple of hours practice before the LPC.
An LPC must be conducted by a type rating examiner (TRE) but does not require the involvement of an airline or approved training organisation (ATO). The companies that operate airliner flight simulators hire these out by the hour so it should be possible for unemployed airline pilots to make arrangements with independent TRE’s (e.g., unemployed Training Captains) to keep their ratings current. For business jet types it’s more difficult because the ATOs do not usually allow the simulators to be ‘dry leased’.
If a pilot’s type rating is expired, then only an ATO can arrange the required training for it to be renewed.
Back to work for another operator
Before a type-rated pilot can start flying for a new operator (e.g. an airline), he/she must complete the operator’s conversion course (OCC). The OCC introduces the pilot to the specific operating policies and procedures of that airline and includes ground school, simulator training and checking, line flying under supervision and a line check.
The content of the OCC should be determined according to the experience of the pilot. Some operators will be able to ‘credit’ certain training items completed with another operator, for example, ‘wet drill’ training, but most of the content of an OCC is specific to the particular airline. The practical part may involve only a couple of simulator sessions and airlines will prefer applicants that need minimal training.
New type rating
Airlines may recruit pilots that do not have a type-rating for the aircraft that they will fly. In this case the operator’s conversion course (OCC) would be combined with a type rating course. This is something that airlines avoid if there are type-rated applicants available.
Pilots may arrange to compete a type rating on a new aircraft type to improve their employment prospects. A type rating course must be completed at an approved training organisation (ATO). It can cost as little as €12,000 for a popular type like the B737 or A320 but will be more expensive for other types (more than €100,000 for some business jets). When a type-rating is completed outside of an airline then take-offs and landings on an actual aircraft are required (‘base training’). Depending on the aircraft type it may be difficult, expensive or impossible to arrange this.
Self-funding a type-rating is a risky option as most airlines will prefer pilots with experience on type over those with a fresh type rating.
Boom time for training providers?
Regulations do not require a lot of simulator training before grounded pilots get back in the air so there won’t be a surge in demand for simulator time.
Training providers and simulator operators should recognise that the collapse of their usual clientele (the airlines) means that any revenue opportunity is welcome. It’s better to hire out simulators to unemployed pilots for rock-bottom fees than to have them standing idle.
When it’s time to restart operations, the reputable airlines will be making risk assessments and arranging for additional pilot training to address possible ‘skills fade’ but airlines and pilots alike will be looking for the most cost-effective ways to get flying again.