Covid-fueled business aviation demand is creating shortages of aircraft, as well as qualified pilots and maintainers. Chuck Weirauch spoke with industry leaders about the training community’s response. 

The business aviation market is currently taking off like never before in its history, mainly due to travelers shunning commercial flights during Covid-19 and choosing private flight options. While the aviation community welcomes this comeback from the darkest days of the pandemic in 2020, this trend is creating some previously unforeseen challenges for the industry.

The increasing demand for business aircraft, in particular from firms that had previously not considered such a purchase, is putting a strain on both aircraft manufacturers and resellers as well in their efforts to meet this new trend. Business aviation training providers are also feeling the squeeze, as they struggle to schedule new business aircraft crews for training via a limited number of training programs and training devices, particularly for some older aircraft types. And most training aircraft are older legacy types, with few or any available. 

Aircraft Demand Spiking

According to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA)’s 2021 General Aviation Aircraft Shipments and Billings Report released recently, “overall, when compared to 2020, all aircraft segments saw an increase in shipments and preliminary aircraft deliveries valued at $25.2 billion, an increase of 10.2 percent.” (Turboprop aircraft deliveries increased by 19%, business jet deliveries by 10.2%).

The FAA Business Jet Report for February 2022 also reflects these trends in business aviation. The document shows a total of 3,501,192 business jet operations conducted in 2020, a decline of 22.78% from the previous year. For 2021, the publication reported a major increase, a total of 5,099,528 of such operations. That number reflects an increase of 45.65% in operations in just one year, an overall record.

It's early days to determine the impact on business aviation from the fallout of the war in Ukraine, but impacts certainly include oil prices and supplies of titanium and other materials used in aircraft production. Closure of Russian airspace impacts routes between the US and Asia-Pacific countries, adding up to five hours flight time for the detour.

Tight Market Expected for Months

The training community leaders who spoke with CAT confirmed the rapid growth of business aviation and described how this trend will impact the industry.

“We certainly see this trend of moving to flying private continuing for 2022 and 2023, for sure, and likely beyond,” said Richard Meikle, Executive Vice President for Safety and Regulatory Compliance for FlightSafety International; Meikle also represents FSI-Textron Aviation Training. “As a result, the new aircraft market has gotten very tight, and the used aircraft market has gotten even tighter.” 

Jeff Wofford, Director of Aviation and Chief Pilot for network infrastructure provider CommScope and Chair of the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) Safety Committee, described the trend as “going gangbusters, with business aircraft inventory going lower than perhaps it has ever been before. 

Vance Ontjes, Director of Sales and Customer Service for TRU Simulation + Training, a Textron company, pointed that based on what we know today, the demand for business aviation travel can be anticipated to grow over the next decade. This will naturally result in more demand for business aviation training needs, he added.

Stress Test for Trained Personnel

The need to train more business aviation pilots and maintainers is stressing training providers in their efforts to meet the demand. 

“We have a number of our devices running full capacity 20 hours a day, and some of these airframes are in the legacy category,” Meikle reported. “So there is no question that there is a bit of a constraint out there. And unfortunately, what this is driving some people to do is play training in the aircraft instead of a simulator, and that does not give you anywhere near the same level of ability to train pilots and the technical maneuvers.”

Instructor availability has always been an issue for providers, and that situation is becoming more of a challenge. Ontjes noted that increasing demand for business pilot training will further increase the need to recruit and retain high-quality simulator instructors. 

“I think the biggest challenge is that with all of the airplanes on the market, both new and legacy, operators will have a hard time getting training scheduled,” Wofford added. “For example, now you can’t get additional training slots for the Challenger 300 and 350 platforms because the simulators are all booked up.” 

Threat to Air Safety?

The consensus is that the shortage of qualified pilots and maintainers is the most significant challenge to air safety. NBAA Safety Committee chair Wofford is responsible for overseeing the committee’s many safety-related education programs for the association’s membership. The primary emphasis of these programs is the improvement of pilot training. 

“I think that one of the primary safety issues for this year and for the near future is the fact that we are in the middle of a pretty severe pilot shortage,” Wofford emphasized. “With the rapid expansion of business aviation, we are going to wind up with an influx of new pilots. If we are not careful about how training is implemented for them, we are going to see some issues with the newer guys and gals in the system. If I could get anything across, it’s that training truly is the key to improving our safety record and making sure that we are building better pilots and maintainers.” 

Meikle also feels that the aviation industry needs to make sure that new-entry bizav pilots, some from other categories of aviation, are meeting the high levels of training standards advocated by the industry during the tightening pilot supply for business aviation.

“It’s not unusual to see pilots with lower hours in this category than before going into training,” he pointed out. “They may be used to glass cockpits, but we need to be sure that we are targeting the training to the right entry level. The other thing that we need to acknowledge is the learning style that people are used to. Not only are all pilots not the same, they don’t learn the same way either.”

"The AMT shortage will be catastrohic if we don't do something." - Jeff Wofford, Chair, NBAA Safety Committee. Image credit: TAG Aviation..

AMT Shortage, Too, Maybe Worse

The shortage of aircraft maintenance personnel is as much a threat to safety in the business aviation arena as it is for commercial aviation, according to Wofford and Meikle.

“The pilot shortage is critical, but the AMT shortage will be catastrophic if we don’t do something,” Wofford emphasized.” It doesn’t matter how many pilots we have to fly these airplanes if we don’t have the people to maintain them. This is something we really have to work on.”

“As you know, the shortage of maintenance technicians is likely to be as high or if not worse than the pilot shortage,” Meikle agreed. “I think that the maintenance training space is under-emphasized by many operators, since it is not as critical to them as pilot training. In response, we have been focusing quite aggressively on the maintenance training side.” 

More Affordable Simulation a Solution? 

To meet the demand for more business aviation pilots, there is a need for more simulation devices to be available in more convenient locations at more affordable prices than those charged when employing traditional full-flight simulators, Ontjes said. He pointed out that this notion has been advanced by ICAO 9265, an internationally recognized set of FSTD evaluation guidelines. 

“We believe the future of flight training includes advanced, more economical devices, so we’re investing in developing the best business aircraft FTDs that balance cost without sacrificing quality,” Ontjes added. 

Another means to provide lower-cost training across a wider domain is distance learning, a training delivery mechanism that has more than proved its worth during the pandemic. Meikle cited the success of FSI’s latest effort in this category: its online instructor-led LiveLearning concept that employs simulation, but the student and instructor are in different locales during training sessions. Meikle also cited the company’s new partnership with GE Digital to bring actual Corporate FOQA (C-FOQA)-based flight data into its corporate jet flight training simulators to enhance business aviation training and reduce risk.

Advanced Technologies

With advanced technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) technologies becoming incorporated into flight simulation, CAT asked these training experts just how much value they might add into corporate flight training. While all encourage the integration of emerging technologies into training devices, Wofford and Ontjes disagree as to which might be the best for business aviation training. 

“It appears that AR is likely better suited for type-rated pilot training than VR,” Ontjes said. “VR has a bright future for initial license training for new pilots or in very specific scenarios. However, it appears limited in its use for experienced business aviation pilots. 

Wofford feels that the potential for VR application in aircraft training “is phenomenal.” With VR, you can build a generic airplane cockpit and do all kinds of training, he stated.

AAM/eVTOL Training Emerging

While not quite ready for prime time, it’s clear that aircraft and systems in the emerging Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) category will play a major role in the future of business aviation. In response, training providers such as FSI, TRU and CAE are getting ready to play a significant role in training for these systems.

CAE seems to be a bit ahead of the game by promoting an AAM pilot training program, citing a coming need for a “sizeable amount” of electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft pilots in the near future. The Canadian training provider has formed a partnership with Vermont-based Beta Technologies for the development of a pilot and maintenance training program for its Alia eVTOL aircraft. CAE also has training arrangements with eVTOL developers Volocopter and, more recently, Joby.

According to Ontjes, Textron is involved in many aspects of AAM, and TRU is engaged with the teams leading these efforts to determine how training fits into the equation. 

Earlier this month, FlightSafety and NetJets, the largest private aviation company in the world, signed an MoU with Lilium for a proposed strategic partnership. Meikle told us that the FSI organization has a team focused on business development of all aspects associated with AAM.

“This is an interesting space, and one of the challenges that we are still trying to figure out is the direction that this is going to go,” Meikle summarized. “Namely, how are the regulators going to certify the AAM devices as airplanes, VTOLs, helicopters, or vertical lift systems. Everything is a bit out there right now.” 

Boost to Simulation

Regardless of what amount or levels of pilot or maintenance training will be required for any business aircraft platforms, the industry is sure to see much more simulation to help meet the need for qualified personnel, Wofford stated.

“This is where simulation technology can come in and help bolstering the training,” he concluded. “With simulation, you are really going to be able to improve the number of people that you put through the training program.” 

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