Updated: May 18
For the past 30 years the Full Flight Simulator (FFS) has dominated the civil aviation training sector, the motion/no-motion debate has rumbled on but lower cost, fixed based, Flight Training Devices (FTDs), have failed to seriously challenge the pre-eminence of the FFS. Is that about to change? We think a perfect storm is brewing in the commercial airline transport flight training sector and the FFS is going to be at its epicentre.
FFS Supply and Demand
We have all become used to ever shorter lead-times and falling prices for FFS devices for the most common aircraft types relatively speaking. The Training Device Manufacturers (TDM) have been launching increasing numbers of white-tail devices from predicted demand based on Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) aircraft sales; in the space of only three months COVID-19 has halted that. Indications are that almost all the major FFS TDMs have suspended production and have laid off staff; the staff laid off being predominantly production staff.
So, what does that mean for a potential FFS purchaser at the moment? Well some might say that this is probably the time to pick-up a bargain, the TDMs have to invest a large amount of up front cash to build a FFS and they probably all have existing inventory that they now need to desperately move, with no new orders on the immediate horizon their cash-flow will be seriously hit, evidenced by the lay-offs. Even the TDMs who compete in the market selling time with their own training centres will have seen their revenues plummet.
But the COVID-19 restrictions are slowly being lifted and the supply of FFS the TDMs have in stock will eventually be sold, even if it takes more than 12 months, but what then? It is hard to envision a return to large scale white-tail production in the foreseeable future, so we will probably find ourselves back to “build to order” and eighteen months plus lead-times even if the demand from the industry is there.
The other change will likely be FFS prices. For some years now TDMs have struggled to achieve reasonable margins, most FFSs for popular aircraft types only achieve low single digit margins at best. We have all seen the results of this with reduced quality documentation packages and a push to streamlined, product, software loads. The principal aircraft (OEMs) have also been increasing the obligatory data and parts content of the FSTDs to the point that on some types the majority of the software on the FSTD comes from the aircraft and/or avionics manufacturers; the TDMs can do little to control these costs and it all eats away at their margins. It is hard to see many of the TDMs being willing or able to continue to compete at current market prices, with a drop in production rates costs will inevitably rise and it may well be that the current market, crowded with TDMs, sees more of them deciding to withdraw from the field altogether.
Another more obvious problem is the reduced air transport activity caused by the pandemic. We are bombarded on a daily basis with apocalyptic news showing the decline in travel, reductions in airline fleets and the slowing of production rates of aircraft. For many years now the TDMs have applied algorithms on the ratio of aircraft to FFS to predict the demand for FFS; running those predictions today would show a gloomy result. Even if the predicted “training bubble”, as returning crews need re-certifying and crews displaced from scrapped fleets need Type Ratings (TR), materialises it will be short lived. It would be a brave person to predict exactly when demand for FFS will return to pre-pandemic levels, but one thing seems certain, it will be longer than the build cycle of an FFS.
Training and Regulatory Evolution Impact
Back in 2005, at the initial behest of the United States Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), an International Working Group (IWG) was established under the auspices of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) to update ICAO 9625, the Manual of Criteria for the Qualification of FSTDs upon which many National Aviation Authority (NAA) regulations for FFS qualification are based. The IWG undertook a fundamental review of what training device features at which fidelity levels were actually required for any training task, type or license. Over the last fourteen years this document has continued to evolve taking into account new training paradigms such as the Multi-crew Pilot License (MPL) and Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT) amongst others. Recently, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) announced that they have been drafting a Notice of Proposed Amendment to the FSTD regulations and Parts FCL, ORO, ORA and ARA that largely embodies the adoption of ICAO 9625 edition 4, expressing type rating and recurrent training tasks in terms of 12 defined simulation features and 4 fidelity levels, the so called FSTD Capability Signature (FCS). The implication of this being that more type rating and recurrent training can be credited in more devices than just the traditional FFS.
The FAA also moved in this direction, in 2016 it revised FAA 14-CFR Part 60 to introduce the Level 7 Flight Training Device (FTD) allowing most handling tasks, previously requiring a FFS, to be trained in an FTD.
The result is that it is becoming more practical and acceptable for the NAAs to allow operators to carry-out far more accredited training in a non-FFS device. However the Covid-pandemic and the pressure on airlines to reduce costs is potentially going to provide an unexpected impetus to this initiative; the price of a high-end fixed base FTD can be as low as one quarter of the price of a FFS. If you can maintain and even improve training outcomes and competencies and do more training, more often, at your home base, thus avoiding lost duty days and unnecessary health risk exposure at a time when cost and resource efficiencies are super critical, then even the most eloquent Head of Training is going to struggle to justify operating a FFS if it is not fully utilized. Of course there will be some training tasks that still currently mandate the usage of an FFS; it is currently hard to envision Zero Flight Time Training (ZFT) and full stall recovery training, as mandated in FAA, being permitted on a fixed base device or Upset Prevention and Recovery Training (UPRT). But if the bulk of training transfers to fixed base devices and FTDs then the need for a FFS will become much reduced.
Even if new FFS don't become totally extinct in the immediate post COVID-19 pandemic era the landscape will be changing to reflect the increased usage and capabilities of the other non FFS related training tools already in the market (including virtual and augmented reality based devices - more on these in a future article). With the TDMs under great strain and the changing training paradigms and FSTD qualification regulations (for the better we believe) now may be the “day of the FTDs” (with apologies to author John Wyndham). New training tools, enabling regulations, technologies and capabilities will provide the means to the end.
How can Sim Ops Help?
At Sim Ops we are lucky that we have great experience of having participated in, and contributed to, the working groups and rule making task teams attempting to drive the industry forward to embrace new training regimes, technologies and concepts. We are very well placed to guide operators through the new regulations when they are adopted into the industry. We can also help you specify the FSTD you actually need to achieve your training tasks. Read more about our FSTD Assessment and Appraisal and Regulatory Assistance services, and get in touch if you want to know more.