Demand for training is fuelling growth among independent simulator centres

Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC


Training is a competency close to the core of most airlines, an expensive necessity that is not willingly outsourced. But increasingly the tools of pilot training - commercial flight simulators - are becoming commodities to which airlines can gain access without the expense of purchasing and operating them.

Whether through a training provider independent of either manufacturer or airline, an airline-owned centre run as an independent business, or a manufacturer-run programme to put simulators with its customers, there are several less expensive ways to gain access to effective training.

A major expansion of the independent flight training market has begun over the past 12-18 months. The largest player, FlightSafety Boeing Training International (FSBTI), has started work on a $100 million Latin American training hub in Miami, Florida, and announced plans for a European hub in London. The venture, which has its North American hub in Seattle, Washington, says an Asian training hub is also on the cards.

Having announced that London's Gatwick and Heathrow airports were in the running as sites for the $85 million European training hub, the FlightSafety/Boeing joint venture has delayed finalising its plans while it considers the offer of an existing simulator centre. The Miami centre, meanwhile, is under construction, and is due to open in the first quarter of 2000.

One factor in FSBTI's deliberations might be that the London area is already well served with independent training centres. GECapital has purchased the former Hughes Rediffusion (originally British Caledonian) simulator centre at Gatwick from Raytheon, and plans a major expansion. Meanwhile, simulator manufacturer Thomson Training &Simulation (TTS) has built a new centre near Heathrow for its Orbit Flight Training subsidiary.

Miami is also a highly competitive market but, like London, is the preferred gateway to an entire continent. Miami-based Pan Am Inter-national Flight Academy (PAIFA) has embarked on a major expansion after being acquired by US investment firm J W Childs. Aeroservice Aviation Center, meanwhile, has completed the move into a new $7.5 million facility adjacent to Miami International Airport, which positions the company for growth.

Beyond Miami

PAIFA's expansion will take it beyond Miami, with announced plans to establish and operate training centres for customer airlines in Cincinnati, Ohio; Dulles International Airport near Washington DC; and Memphis, Tennessee. The company has just agreed to acquire Reflectone's Dulles training centre, which caters for several British Aerospace types. PAIFA has also acquired Simcom International, which caters for the general and business aviation market at simulator centres in Orlando and Vero Beach, Florida, and Phoenix, Arizona.

In expanding, PAIFA is adopting the formula, proved by FlightSafety International (FSI), of locating simulators close to anchor customers. The contract with Atlantic Coast Airlines is particularly significant, as it takes PAIFA into the regional jet training market. The company will provide simulator training for the Bombardier Canadair Regional Jet (CRJ) at a centre being built close to the United Express carrier's hub at Washington's Dulles International Airport.

The rapidly growing regional jet market has fuelled expansion at FSI, which has no fewer than 16 simulators in service or in production for the CRJ and Embraer RJ-135/145. The US company's first simulator for the stretched, 70-seat, CRJ-700 is also on order. The success of Embraer's regional jet family, meanwhile, has led FSI to expand internationally, with an ERJ-135/145 simulator already in place at the company's Paris training centre and a second to be installed in the UK by early 2000.

The European market for regional jets is growing, and Friendship Simulation (FSC) of the Netherlands has ordered simulators for the CRJ and the Fairchild Dornier 328JET from CAE Electronics for delivery later this year. FSC operates training centres in Amsterdam, Brussels and Maastricht.

The airline training market is not the only one undergoing significant expansion. FSI has embarked on a programme to provide business-aircraft training at more locations. As the factory-authorised training provider for the majority of corporate jet types, the company operates centres adjacent to most of the manufacturers, but is also installing business jet simulators at more of its sites in the USA and elsewhere.

Rival SimuFlite Training International, now owned by GE Capital Services, has also embarked on a major expansion, so far centred on its training base at Dallas/Fort Worth Inter-national Airport in Texas. The company plans to add up to 10 business aircraft simulators. Separately, Bombardier has agreed to establish a Learjet training centre at SimuFlite, to open in mid-2000. Together, these moves could double the company's simulator fleet.

PAIFA, through its acquisition of Simcom, is also targeting the business aviation market. Simcom is already the factory-authorised training provider for AASI, Air Tractor, Pilatus, New Piper and VisionAire. The company is expanding into Learjet and Cessna Citation training, and has taken over operation of PAIFA's business jet simulators.

The key to the expansion of the independent flight training market appears to be a new willingness to take the training to the customer. This has implications for manufacturer- and airline-operated training centres wishing to compete for third-party business.

Boeing has already cast its lot in with Flight-Safety and the plan to establish regional training hubs. Airbus Industrie has operated simulator centres in Toulouse and Miami for several years and has opened a training centre in China. The manufacturer has also struck aircraft/simulator package deals to put training equipment in the hands of its customers.

In the regional arena, Bombardier and simulator supplier CAE operate simulator centres jointly in Montreal and, together with Lufthansa CityLine, in Berlin. While Embraer has elected to provide training through FSI, ATR has its own simulator centre in Toulouse and, along with Thai Airways International and TTS, operates another in Bangkok.

Major forces

Several airline-owned training centres, meanwhile, have emerged as major forces in the third-party training market. United Airlines is expanding its Flight Center in Denver, Colorado, to support both its own growing fleet and the 200-plus carriers that use the centre. Expanded to 36 simulator bays, the Denver centre represents an investment of more than $340 million, which was justified largely by the amount of outside business the expansion would bring in.

Airline alliances are also changing the face of the training business, with Northwest Airlines and KLM having agreed both to combine their purchasing power and market jointly their training capabilities. Between them, Northwest Aerospace Training (NATCO) and KLM Flight Crew Training Centre operate over 35 simulators at four locations in North America and Europe.

NATCO, meanwhile, is also leading the industry in updating its simulators to a common standard to increase reliability and minimise training time lost, which will benefit both internal and external customers.

Whether the customer is internal - North-west at Natco or United at Denver - or one of the hundreds of airlines that use third-party training, the message appears to be that the customer is in command and economic barriers to effective training have been lowered.

Source: Flight International