Airlines face a potentially dangerous squeeze.
The average experience level of pilots will reduce as the industry expands, so that makes training more important, but airlines can't afford to improve training because the fuel price is sapping their ability to invest in it.
Thousands of hours of flying doesn't necessarily make a good pilot. It's just proof of survival - a relatively easy thing to achieve in today's reliable aircraft. A good captain is the product of a combination of three things beyond a good education: attitude, aptitude, and quality training. A bulging log book is a bonus.
Cheaper flight simulation could deliver higher skills to more pilots, but at present it's not allowed to. The regulators, it seems, give no credence to simulator training at all unless it is what they deem high fidelity.
How real is real?
Anybody who has "played" Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FS X) on their PC or Mac knows it's more than just an ordinary computer game: it's a simulator, or at least a low-end flight and navigation procedures trainer (FNPT) with a surprisingly extensive global terrain database.
There is a useful learning area between FS X and today's regulator-approved FNPT. The regulators, unfortunately, are slow to reward those who produce effective learning machines in that training no-man's-land by authorising them for appropriate training credits. Meanwhile the big-name simulator manufacturers will inevitably be slow to innovate because there is an actual disincentive for them to do so while the regulators continue to sit on their hands.
Much of the GA sector has never used simulators or flight training devices (FTD) because it has been cheaper to use the aeroplane. Fuel cost is changing that.
Ab-initio helicopter training is a particularly good example of an area that could benefit enormously through the use of low cost simulation with a good visual system. Vital exercises involving engine failure, systems failure, or control failure simply cannot be carried out in a real helicopter because the risks are unacceptably high, so the pilot never gets to practise them unless they happen for real.
The biggest barrier to low-cost, high-end simulation is the regulators' obsession with sophisticated motion systems. FS X doesn't have motion, and neither do most FNPTs, and who misses it?
"Motion" systems are, by definition, thoroughly flawed in an object that doesn't travel anywhere. The body knows it's being fooled, but after a couple of simulator sessions, the pilot has learned to "fly" the simulator - using completely different techniques from those needed to fly the real aeroplane. So what, exactly, does success in handling the simulator prove? I would suggest it creates a tendency to over-control during approach and landing which translates to the real aeroplane when the pilot goes back to the line - especially in pilots that are new to the type.
Simplified, more limited motion, or even just sensory cueing like noise, vibration in the controls and through the seat, provide sufficient realism to make the pilot feel something's going on. Simulation should not pretend to be a replica of the real thing because it's not the real thing. It should simply provide the best learning environment for drills that need practising.
With the price of fuel as high and the supply of pilots as low as they are today, there are added incentives for simulator manufacturers to get smart.
But the regulators have to get smart as well or the model crashes.
The company that breaks today's expensive simulation mould will create a marketplace far bigger than the existing one, and the world's aviators will get more comprehensive training in managing modern aeroplanes successfully.