European training providers ramp up to meet RJ demand

 - November 26, 2007, 1:08 PM

In the lexicon of regional airline training, European carriers confront a classic story line. As regional jets reached the market in the early 1990s, training facilities couldn’t meet the needs of launch customers. As demand increased, training centers began adding equipment, alleviating the problem to a large degree. Ultimately, the availability of training capacity has become at least as important as aircraft performance or acquisition cost at the equipment-selection stage. After roughly a decade of slow development, the training industry in Europe appears to have found its stride, churning out capacity at an unprecedented rate as market forecasts predict 5 percent annual traffic growth during the next 20 years and double the number of airplanes during that period.

“Times are changing,” said François Montel, training manager for France’s Regional Airlines. “From January to August we had to rent an ERJ-145 flight simulator at the St. Louis FlightSafety center. A flight instructor had to stay in the U.S. four months because we couldn’t find enough slots in Europe. Today, all is going well and it’s easy to find slots.”    

Another French regional, Air Littoral, faced similar circumstances when it took delivery of its first Canadair Regional Jet in the early 1990s. At the time Europe had only three full-motion simulators for the type–one at Brit Air’s Icare facility in Brittany and two at Lufthansa’s Berlin training center. Today, Canadair Regional Jet operators enjoy ready access to crew training in Europe, where six simulators operate at the moment. “Our crews had to go to Bombardier’s training center in Canada,” said Laurent Godard, director of the ESMA-Air Littoral flying school. “Now our pilots are going to Icare.” Meanwhile, ESMA prepares to open its own new $9.4 million training center. “We are talking with partners about installing four simulators soon,” said Godard.

By most accounts, Embraer ERJ operators enjoy similar benefits, with new capacity at such centers as FlightSafety Paris Le Bourget and Crosscat, the Basel, Switzerland-based facility owned by Crossair and General Electric Capital Aviation Training (Gecat). “With five ERJ-145 simulators in operation in Europe, capacity is reaching demand, but to maintain Embraer deliveries more units will be needed,” said Crosscat president and CEO Robert Somers. Toward that end, FlightSafety plans to deliver a new ERJ-145 sim to its Le Bourget training center this fall, and another machine to Crosscat next June.

Icare Preps for Air France Affiliates
As European regional carriers increasingly enter the jet age, European training providers are developing their facilities to adapt. Icare, which operates ATR 42/72 and CRJ-100 simulators, took delivery of a new CRJ-200/700 CAE FFS in April. Around the same time, Air France chose Icare as its new training center for all its regional subsidiaries, which employ a total of 450 pilots. To meet the demand, the Brittany school added a new ERJ-145 sim from FlightSafety. Jacques Enjalbert, Icare president, said his company has contemplated buying a new ERJ-170/190 simulator as well, but the uncertain status of Air France subsidiary Regional Airlines’ order for 10 of the 70-seat jets has put those plans on hold.

Gecat, one of the largest training systems providers in the world, aims to become number-one in the European flight training market, said Patrick Laine, Gecat’s president and CEO. Gecat, which jointly operates the new 14-bay Crosscat center in Basel with Crossair, plans to add at least five full-motion simulators within the next five years. Crosscat plans to become the first training center for the ERJ-170/190 in Europe after Crossair takes delivery of its first ERJ-170 late next year. The Swiss regional has placed a firm order for 30 ERJ-170s and 30 ERJ-190-200s. Gecat’s sister company, General Electric Capital Aviation Services (Gecas), has ordered another 50.

CAE Boards Spanish Caravan
Another increasingly active player in the training center business and the world’s largest simulator manufacturer, Canada’s CAE, plans to open a new facility in Madrid next spring. A joint venture of CAE, Bombardier and SAS Flight Academy, the new center will offer de Havilland Dash 8 and CRJ-200/700 training to its first customer, Spain’s Air Nostrum. CAE also recently acquired Netherlands-based Schreiner Aviation Training (SAT), which operates 19 full-motion simulators in Amsterdam, Maastricht, Brussels and Dallas. SAT is the worldwide designated training provider for Fairchild Dornier 328JETs and turboprops.

While manufacturers, financiers and airlines scramble to maintain supply of simulator facilities to meet the projected demand for regional airline pilot training, others have taken steps to lessen airlines’ dependence on training centers. For example, at the behest of Germany’s Augsburg Airways French manufacturer Alsim has developed a fixed-based trainer called the FNPT2, designed as a low-cost “bridge” between ground school and full-motion simulators. Priced at around $2 million, the FNPT2 costs a fraction of a full-motion simulator, and JAA regulations allow pilots to complete half of their initial and recurrent training in such a device. Alsim has so far delivered a single Dash 8 FNPT2 to Augsburg, which operates 16 of the Canadian turboprops.