Without highly trained cabin crew, industry recovery is impossible. Paul Eden discovers how two very different UK companies, Skyborne Airline Academy and EDM, are standing ready to satisfy the needs of a re-emerging, evolving market
It is a peculiarity of the Covid-19 pandemic that grounding swathes of airliners has, in some cases, provided space for service providers to take stock, look to the future and plan afresh. It’s certainly true of cabin crew training, where the inevitability of the return to operations means airlines will need to refresh staff ahead of those first flights back, maintain currency for those still flying and look ahead a few years to a time when new talent is needed.
Two UK companies, Manchester-based EDM and Skyborne Airline Academy at Gloucestershire Airport, serve quite different aspects of the cabin crew training market. The former manufactures training equipment, including door trainers and complex cabin emergency evacuation trainers (CEETs), while Skyborne is a young company, to-date specialising in pilot training but now ready to expand and better fulfil its ‘Airline Academy’ title.
Ian Cooper, chief operating officer at Skyborne Airline Academy, explains the company’s forthcoming cabin crew training offer. “Some years ago, EASA changed the regulations around cabin crew training, allowing it to be done by a third party provider as attestation training. It provides generic training before crew go on to type-specific training with their airline.”
Some airlines still prefer to deliver a complete training package themselves but, as Cooper notes, attestation training enables them to reduce costs and streamline the training process. “It means they don’t need to take senior staff away from line operations and they can pass higher volumes of crew through their training mechanism more efficiently.
“Working with a former cabin crew training manager from a major airline, we began developing a course two years ago. She wrote the course over six months and since then we’ve been working through the detailed approval process with the UK CAA. Now, the course content is approved, except for the need to have the CAA’s inspectors come on site and view the first course being delivered.”
The plan is to run an initial course with live trainees, probably taking small numbers of students selected by airlines pre-Covid and offering to deliver the package gratis. Completing the course will mean those crews are ready for type-specific airline training as soon as passenger flying begins to pick up.
Skyborne already delivers pilot training from its purpose-designed building and that same structure will now also accommodate cabin crew training. The course is primarily classroom-based and completed in eight days, but Skyborne adds an additional day and a half of customer service training at the end.
There are significant exceptions to the classroom teaching, however, including fire training. Here, Skyborne has taken a surprisingly realistic approach. “We’ve worked with the airport fire service,” Cooper says, “and developed a new training site in partnership.
“The site has a freight container mocked-up as an aircraft cabin. They’ll use it to deliver smoke drills and it contains a ‘galley’ and ‘toilet’, allowing trainees to extinguish fires in both.”
It’s worth checking at this point that trainees will actually ‘fight’ live fires and Cooper confirms: “There’s a mocked-up aircraft oven. When the doors are opened, flames billow out. Our trainees will use live extinguishers to put it out, whereas training usually uses water.”
The other exception is life raft drill, which requires that trainees swim 25m and then climb into a life raft. Skyborne has an agreement to use the swimming pool at a private school in nearby Cheltenham for the work.
Hajati Treacher-Morley, a former customer service manager at British Airways, is now Skyborne’s head of cabin crew training, while its instructors are all experienced personnel with careers at companies including KLM UK and AirTanker behind them. Cooper makes the bittersweet admission that Covid-related layoffs mean Skyborne has been able to choose between a large number of excellent instructor candidates.
For now, the course is delivered to CAA and EASA requirements. While Cooper says Singapore and Malaysia are among the few non-European countries accepting attestation training, he expects it to become more widespread. Meanwhile, like Skyborne’s pilot training, the cabin crew training is delivered in a package that’s not geographically restricted; one of the cabin crew instructors is, indeed, based in Geneva and Cooper says an airport classroom has already been selected, a swimming pool chosen and an agreement put in place with the airport fire section.
Skyborne has examined the possibility of delivering parts of the course remotely in light of Covid, but Cooper reckons perhaps as little as a day of the work would be viable by video link: “First aid with a mannequin, putting an arm in a sling or dressing burns really has to be done in the classroom.” But what about virtual reality? “There’s definitely a place for VR,” Cooper says. “We aim to use VR for aircraft walkarounds in future. We have it in development and it’ll definitely be part of the course.”
Lee Whittaker, head of sales at EDM, sees a very different aspect of cabin crew training. Mandatory cabin crew training demands that personnel attend recurrent training at calendar intervals, meaning EDM has seen only a marginal change, compared to business as usual, due to Covid-19. “We initially saw a downturn,” he says, “during a period of around three months while the airlines decided what to do. Then orders began picking up again and, although they haven’t returned to pre-Covid levels, we’ve been reassured.”
Where the business has changed more significantly is in how EDM supports its customers. A rigorous process of factory approval is undertaken before equipment is shipped, with the company traditionally sending installation teams out to customer facilities to assist in the often complex task of moving items into buildings and then reassembling them ready for service.
With smaller devices, including door trainers, the factory acceptance process has been taking place remotely, before the equipment has been shipped, accompanied by a detailed installation plan. Whittaker reckons a mix of remote and traditional, live inspection and installation will continue in the future, although the CEETs still need a dedicated EDM installation team.
The company is known for its ability to deliver CEETs with synchronised sound, visual and movement components for additional realism and while Whittaker believes EDM still leads in this high-end market, he says augmented and virtual reality devices are also under investigation. “We’ve developed a VR door trainer that allows trainees to run through scenario-based emergency training procedures and provides familiarisation with ‘hotspots’ displaying specific information, although it hasn’t yet been industry certified, so airlines still have to rely on traditional door trainers.”
Anyone who has opened an airliner cabin door will realise they are heavy items and providing an appreciation of their heft is an important, even mandated aspect of any door trainer. VR doesn’t suit itself to such requirements, but Whittaker says EDM is working on a simple design for an overwing exit that combines VR with a ‘handle’ that can only be seen and physically touched with the headset on.
Recent customer deliveries have included a number of traditional A220 door trainers and Whittaker notes that EDM originally developed CSeries door trainers and overwing exit trainers from Bombardier data for Delta Air Lines. “That work means we’ve already absorbed much of the cost and done the non-recurring engineering for the A220, which means we can be really competitive when a new airline is looking for A220 devices.”
EDM is well positioned to support existing customers post-Covid, especially if they are reconfiguring cabins to better suit evolving markets. It also has the expertise to supply new equipment quickly, should airlines re-equip to suit those same changing conditions. Meanwhile, Skyborne Aviation Academy’s cabin crew attestation training occurs at a different point in the training pipeline but is nonetheless ready to suit the needs of a resurgent, evolving industry.