This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.
As most of the world continues the slow process of reopening, flight training providers are grappling with rebuilding their businesses with the new realities of sanitization, social-distancing, uncertain economies, and the ever-present worry of a possible second virus wave and another round of restrictions. At the same time, providers have found a resiliency through innovation that they believe will expand opportunities and provide new flexibility for students in the future.
Early on, as the pandemic set in, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) surveyed about 300 flight schools to determine how their businesses were faring amid the spread of the virus and the associated restrictions. Keith West, senior director of flight school business support for AOPA, said roughly two-thirds had shut down to some extent. That ranged from ceasing operations altogether to those that might have only conducted ground school or limited flight-training operations to students building solo hours.
Those schools included the small Part 61 flight schools that mostly cater to recreational flyers to the larger Part 141 schools that have higher capital expenses with multi-aircraft fleets and a larger international student clientele. In addition, universities with large aviation schools have had to furlough instructors and send their students home, while the largest of the simulator providers have had to navigate through temporary shutdowns and varying needs of the range of customers.
Many schools said that they could manage for about two months without an income “before it had a severe impact and put the business in question,” West said.
Part 61 and 141 schools did begin to reopen in May and some students were returning, particularly domestically, he said, “but not necessarily to the rates in the past. There are so many different things that are at work.”
Depending on the school, the challenges they have faced have differed. In the Part 61 environment, many schools lost instructors or students because they were older and/or in a higher risk category for the virus and preferred to stay home. As those schools have begun to open, those in higher-risk categories have been reluctant to return.
Health concerns led to the shuttering of flight operations of Santa Monica, California-based Proteus Air Services, which provides flight training with a fleet of Cirrus and Piper aircraft. Proteus closed its flight training completely for 10 weeks and resumed operations in mid-May, explained Rymann Winter, president of the flight training provider. “We had demand from students to keep flying, but we did not want to risk the health of our CFIs,” he said.
Winter agreed that those in higher-risk categories are showing a reluctance to returning. “It’s definitely our younger students who have been most enthusiastic about coming back to fly,” he said. “Older students have said they aren’t comfortable with the risk of exposure from flying. I think these temporary measures will be with us for a long time. At least until a vaccine is available and widespread.”
Part 141 schools have faced grave financial prospects with the heavy capital expenses of their inventory and other training devices. Furthermore, they lost their international client base. “They tended to shut down a lot earlier and their outlook is more questionable because, with the students who went home, there’s no telling when they will come back,” said West.
Anecdotally, he’s heard of a few schools that lost their business. But he worries this will play out further over time: “With Part 141 schools, the problem tends to be the leverage they have on aircraft. They tend to have larger fleets that have loans on them and when they lose an inflow of students, then they have precarious situations.”
Many universities have had to follow the larger mandates of their schools. At Utah Valley University School of Aviation Sciences, like at so many of the universities, the pandemic shuttered its flight training activities and resulted in the furlough of instructors as the students were sent home. “We’ve definitely taken a financial hit” with the suspension of the flight instruction, said Michael Hollister, a UVU assistant professor for aviation sciences. Hollister said expenses already are being held down and he further expressed concerns about being able to retain instructors as the businesses reopen. Further, student enrollments university-wide already are down by some 1,300 to 1,500 students for the fall.
Operations are slowly starting to resume, beginning with flight instructors first, he said. The priority initially will be to finish flight training with its existing students, which may push back or limit the availability of new slots certainly over the summer and maybe even into the fall if classes resume as hoped.
The pandemic hit as UVU has been undergoing a fleet transition with plans to field nine new Diamond DA40s. Between Covid-19 and other regulatory issues, the aircraft are being shipped to UVU instead of the university traveling to Canada to accept them. But until that transition is complete, aircraft availability is tighter.
But for Hollister, one of the bigger losses has been face-to-face instruction. He teaches in-class courses, several designed to prepare for FAA exams. The courses have gone online, but not all students have remained engaged. They are doing the coursework, but he might not hear from them until the end, he said.
For the largest international flight training companies such as CAE and FlightSafety International (FSI), it has been a matter of navigating through restrictions, a fall-off in airline demand, and a reluctance to travel.
CAE president and CEO Marc Parent highlighted these ramifications in its quarterly call with investors, noting “We were leading CAE to what would have been yet another record year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and unfortunately, it impacted us during what is normally our strongest quarter.“
CAE had a series of layoffs and tightened its spending in preparation for an enduring disruption of business. Throughout its network were a series of rotating suspensions. In mid-May Parent reported eight of its 60 locations were suspended and another 17 operating at significantly reduced capacity. “These statistics change on a near-daily basis, as local restrictions continue to evolve,” he said. “We realize that it may take some time before things get back to normal. In the meanwhile, we’re managing the things we can control.” This included assembling a Covid-19 pandemic taskforce to put business continuity plans in place.
CAE chief learning officer Chris Ranganathan said the centers remained open with strict health protocols enforced and the operations vary by location. “We’ve had to deal with many different travel and local restrictions.”
“Like everybody else in the aviation industry, [the pandemic] obviously has had a negative impact on the business,” agreed Brian Moore, senior v-p of operations for FSI. “We’ve seen a reduction of people coming to training as expected, really related to a number of factors,” he said. The travel restrictions have weighed heavily but so too have travel and budget restrictions that companies have implemented themselves.
April seemed to be the trough for FSI, Moore said, adding the training provider saw improvement in May and “really significant improvement” in training and planned training for June and July. FSI has been monitoring the situation daily since it is “just one bad turn” for further shutdowns, Moore said. Still, he expressed optimism. “We’re seeing some positive trends in the future and we’re very encouraged by that.”
This is particularly true as the charter market has begun to recover. Also, the owner-flown business segment has not seen a similar drop-off. “Some of the private operators have still been a little bit hit and miss but interestingly enough the owner-flown market has remained pretty strong,” Moore said. “We’ve seen some pretty strong business throughout this because those people use their airplane for their business needs and have kept doing so.”
Through all this has been innovation. As aircraft remained on the ground and simulation activity quieted to a certain extent, classrooms moved online. Universities such as UVU were able to continue classwork remotely, and Hollister said he expects that some of that to continue to enable the university to operate with smaller classes and within CDC social-distancing guidelines. But he believes the nature of those classes might evolve with live instruction, restoring more of the face-to-face capability that might have been missed in solely online classes.
At Proteus, ground instruction moved to remote video conferencing “with good results,” Winter said. AOPA’s West believes that the pandemic will move more people to such tools and perhaps help further the slow adoption of simulation at flight schools.
“Ground instruction is like any other instruction; it doesn’t have to be delivered one-on-one with the instructor. That’s a pretty inefficient way to do that,” he said. With the exception of the big schools, which have had large ground school classes, how to approach ground schools “has been a struggle in the last few years.”
Going online or "virtual" enables many schools to cast a wider net that extends beyond local students. “I could see a situation where far more students are taking these ground schools online rather than face-to-face, one-on-one instruction,” he said.
As far as the use of virtual reality or simulation, West added he is a big proponent and believes that is the future of training. But it will be an evolution rather than a rapid changeover because cost and long-standing training practices remain barriers. “Unless the flight school is centered around the use of simulators it is hard to integrate it into the curriculum and it is hard to overcome the culture of not using it among the instructors,” he said. “Once we get past that, it will happen slowly across the country. I don’t doubt this situation will accelerate that.”
Companies such as FSI have found the move toward online transformative in some respects.
“We definitely see this is a game-changer for us,” Moore said. Early on, FSI moved its recurrent training ground-school curriculum online using various tools to provide a live-learning approach coordinated with the FAA to be able to ensure the appropriate credit. “The FAA was absolutely fantastic to work with,” he said, enabling students to keep credit as long as they completed the simulator training portion within 90 days. It began initially with a few models and since has expanded to more for both fixed-wing and rotorcraft training. With appropriate credits, FSI has seen significant success on the maintenance side as well.
Through its tools, the web approach has been fully interactive. “We’ve had awesome feedback from clients,” he said.
For FSI, going online isn’t completely new. It had already been developing an online format for recurrency training for Textron Aviation models through its joint venture with the manufacturer. With the pandemic, that effort has expanded to the array of Textron Aviation models as well as to all the sites where the joint venture provides training on those platforms. Similarly, the FAA worked to provide credit as long as the trainee receives simulator training within 60 days. Moore said the JV partners were hoping to expand that to 90 days as well.
“We were intending to move in this direction all along,” Moore said of the effort toward online instruction. “We will continue to expand that to more of our product offerings. We’re receiving a lot of requests for certain platforms.”
He expects the trend to continue because it gives students much more flexibility on the training choices and enables FSI to more fully serve those preferences. “We will continue to have this mix of how we offer ground school training online, live learning, and in the classroom.”
Similarly, CAE has worked to develop new online curriculums, as well as with regulators to move forward in the online environment. CAE has been collaborating with international organizations on recovery plans that include the use of virtual classrooms for competency-based training and refresher courses. “We continue to innovate,” Ranganathan said, with plans to carry these efforts forward into the future. In fact, CAE named a new executive v-p, business development and growth initiatives to partner with business leaders to identify new technologies, particularly in the artificial intelligence and digital arenas.
The industry executives are hopeful, that some of the lessons learned throughout the process will lead to more regulatory flexibility in the future. “There could be opportunities there,” West said, saying once a rule is relaxed, “then you question why you had it in the first place.”
But as restrictions ease, flight schools must still prepare for the continued return of students with health and safety protocols and requirements globally.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), which has resumed flight and housing operations, announced plans to reopen its campuses in Florida and Arizona for face-to-face instruction beginning June 30 with a series of health precautions in place.
ERAU outlined a series of measures that it plans to implement over the summer, including following all federal, state, and local guidance; limiting classroom capacity to ensure physical distancing; optimizing class schedules to minimize contact; pre-screening returning students; requiring cloth face coverings in common areas on campus; mandating daily wellness checks; installing plexiglass barriers and implementing “smart pathways"; and making sanitizers readily available.
“Our plan focuses on statistical risk testing, risk mitigation, support for contact tracing, and, most importantly, education,” said ERAU president Barry Butler. “We are continuing to educate our community on the risks, create redundancy across all of our safety standards, and finalize our testing protocols.”
Such protocols are being put into place at small and large schools alike. At Proteus, everyone has been required to wear masks and gloves. The school conducted temperature checks of “everyone coming through the door,” Winter said. Everything is thoroughly disinfected, and as the school returned to flight operations, it was not allowing passengers on rental flights nor was it loaning headsets. In addition, everyone was required to sign a Covid liability waiver and an affidavit assuring that they are not symptomatic.
“We have really put a major emphasis on all of the training side, cleaning and disinfecting and following general safety and precautions that are tied in with the CDC,” Moore added, stressing the importance that FSI “goes above and beyond that because when you are in a flight simulator, it is a high-touch environment area.” In addition to the cleaning and basic protocols, the precautions have included directing traffic flow within the centers, “ensuring customers see we are really taking social distancing seriously.”
AOPA has provided guidelines, held webinars, and furnished other information to help flight schools adapt to the new environment, West said. Beyond disinfection and masks, he is seeing schools trend toward “contactless transactions,” where students can go through an automated check-in/out process that is self-directed. “That is probably going to go in the future because it is more efficient,” he said. “It probably should have been done in the past.”
How long other procedures will last is less clear. “I think we’ll continue to spray down aircraft for another year or so,” West estimated. “That will probably drift away, but I think we’ll see a lot more procedures toward keeping the airplanes clean.”
As for what the pandemic will mean for flight schools long-term, that is less certain. Concerning to West is the Covid-19 pandemic has been “totally unpredictable,” he said. “How they are going to get out of it is a big question right now.”
“It will be years, rather than months before the fallout from Covid subsides,” Winter said. “We saw a substantial drop in business in ’08, and I expect we’ll have the same drop-off and slow rebound for Covid. Recreational flying is almost always the first luxury to go away when belts are being tightened.”
On the upside, growth might come from people turning to options of flying themselves or flying charter rather than exposing themselves on airlines. However, Winter added, “I think we are going to see fewer people looking to train for a career; the industry went from a pilot shortage to an over-supply in a matter of weeks. This will be an easy pivot for some smaller schools, but a very tough one for the schools focused on high-volume training for the airlines.”
“The airlines are a little bit different animal and that’s a difficult market for us right now,” agreed FSI’s Moore. “On the business aviation side, it’s going to be tied a lot to the economy and that’s going to swing it.”
Initially, FSI is anticipating a big “bow wave” of customers that will return once restrictions further lift. “We’ve got international clients that are just barking to come in and train once restrictions start to ease,” he said. After that initial wave, though, “there will be a bit of settling. It’s not going to be what it was in the first couple of months of the year. People are going to be cautious and watch what the economy does…but we’re seeing some pretty good optimism right now.”
In business aviation, which is a significant portion of CAE’s business, “I’m bullish personally,” Parent said. We do see opposite forces at play because business aviation is historically correlated to GDP and the U.S. corporate profits, but obviously that’s probably going to be trending down. But to me, business jet travel may become preferred for business continuity, for health and safety reasons, and [because of] less frequency of airline of traffic into airports other than the hubs.”