Senate sought tighter pilot training days before Tiger grounding

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The grounding of Tiger Airways Australia comes just days after an Australian Senate committee stressed the need to underpin pilot training and ensure that competency is not eroded by cost pressures and a demand for cockpit crews.

The rural affairs and transport references committee issued 22 recommendations in a report on pilot training and air safety published in June.

It considered whether a co-pilot should have logged at least 1,500h before being entitled to operate regular transport services, given recent trends which mean individuals are moving into co-pilot positions more quickly, with an "apparently modest" 150-200h.

There was "substantial disagreement" among those giving evidence as to how many hours should be sufficient. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority regarded the current minima as satisfactory but this was countered by other submissions which suggested there were "latent" safety risks involved in using co-pilots with minimal licence requirements.

Tiger Airways pointed out to the committee that it had a 2,000h requirement for its co-pilots, but it also said that a 1,500h minimum would force would-be pilots to seek training overseas because there were insufficient opportunities to gain experience in the non-commercial sector in Australia.

While Tiger did not employ cadet pilots, its operations director told the committee that the airline supported cadet schemes and should look at them in future.

"Supporters of the current licence minima generally argued that cadet schemes and third-party training arrangements promote adequate, if not superior, training outcomes as they are specifically tailored to producing commercial pilots to operate multi-crew aircraft in accordance with the specific standard operating procedures of a particular airline," said the committee.

It also heard that proficiency of low-experience pilots was supported by continual training and checking, as well as specific operational limitations. Virgin Blue, it said, restricted the pairing of inexperienced pilots through a "green on green" policy.

But those who backed raising the minimum experience level countered that cadet training methods were not a substitute for real-life flying. The Australian and International Pilots Association said the current minimum hours were "insufficient" to provide an "appropriate balance" of skills and experience to enable a pilot to "adequately perform" in "all reasonably foreseeable circumstances".

The committee also said: "In particular it was argued that simulator training is pursued as a minimum compliance, or 'tick-a-box' activity, and is not fully utilised to achieve proficiency outcomes." It added that the "jury is still out" on the effectiveness of multi-crew pilot licences.

But the committee said it "could not conclude with any confidence" that Australian air safety was threatened by the minima for co-pilots, given CASA's evidence and current international standards. It "did not support" imposing a 1,500h minimum, expressing concern that this would "adversely impact" the supply of suitably qualified pilots to parts of the Australian aviation industry, including regional operations.

"Despite this conclusion the committee observes that the increasing use of co-pilots with flight experience hours approaching the licence minima does give rise to legitimate concerns regarding the capacity of flight crew to respond to emergency situations," it added.

"Equally the use of low-experience co-pilots may increase the potential for adverse consequences arising from steep cockpit authority gradients."

The committee recommended that an air transport pilot's licence should be a requirement for first officers in jets the size of the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737, while non-jet operators using low-time first officers should be required to provide "enhanced supervision and mentoring schemes".

It also said that there are "legitimate questions" about whether simulator training is being used to achieve "optimum safety-related outcomes as opposed to minimum compliance outcomes" - citing stall training as a source of concern - and recommended that CASA undertake a risk assessment of simulator training to determine whether this is the case.