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United Calls in Pilots for Extra Training

Photo: Mel Evans/Associated Press

The Wall Street Journal | By Andy Pasztor and Susan Carey

All 12,000 aviators will have an extra training day in response to incidents more than a year ago

By the end of April, each aviator at United, the nation’s No. 3 airline by traffic, will be required to attend a day of classroom instruction focusing on various safety issues and enhanced teamwork.

United Continental Holdings Inc. is taking the unusual step of calling back all 12,000 of its pilots for an extra training day over the next three months, an aggressive response to a spate of serious safety incidents more than a year ago and to prepare for looming changes facing the industry.

By the end of April, each aviator at the nation’s No. 3 airline by traffic will be required to attend a day of classroom instruction focusing on various safety issues, enhanced teamwork on the flight deck and the changing role of pilots amid rapid industry shifts.

None of the safety incidents that helped prompt the training—which ranged from dangerously low fuel to an emergency pull-up maneuver to avoid crashing into the ground—resulted in an accident. But United considered them serious enough to send a dramatic two-page safety bulletin to its pilots early last year. The document highlighted major risk factors, including lax discipline and poor cockpit communication.

Begun on Jan. 19 after nearly a year of planning and development, the training is intended, among other things, to encourage veteran captains to more-effectively mentor co-pilots, and to help junior aviators be more assertive with senior captains if they spot problems or dangers. United spokesman Charlie Hobart said Friday the idea was to improve communication between the two groups by teaching situational awareness and as a way to bridge the generation gap.

Mr. Hobart said two of the five modules in the program are based on United’s own safety data to reinforce standard operating procedures. Other aspects look ahead to evolving hiring patterns, fleet adjustments, cockpit automation and other changes facing the industry.

 “We’re the first in the industry to take this on with a comprehensive strategy,” he said. “We’re not waiting for the regulators to tell us what to do.”

United has been hit by turmoil since September, when its then-Chief Executive was ousted and a United director, Oscar Munoz, was recruited away from a railroad operator to take the top airline job. Mr. Munoz suffered a heart attack six weeks later and recently had a heart transplant. He is recovering and expected to be back full-time by the end of this quarter.

The initiative amounts to a major corporate commitment to ensure that flight crews understand the lessons from the carrier’s string of high-profile, previously identified pilot lapses, and learn ways to prevent hazardous slip-ups in the future.

The latest move also comes as United—along with most of the U.S. airline industry—faces an array of challenges posed by accelerating retirements of veteran pilots and broader changes in how airline crews perform their jobs. The makeup of crews means co-pilots often are younger and have less overall flight inexperience, than in the past.

At the same time, increasing reliance on cockpit automation can lead to pilot inattention or confusion in the event of an emergency. Undue dependence on computers can degrade a pilot’s manual flying skills. For years, despite the high degree of safety in the U.S. airline industry, aviation regulators have struggled with the best way to foster greater pilot professionalism across the industry.

Tony Kern, the main consultant who worked on the program, said the principles are important “because I’ve never seen another industry go through such a generational handoff.” In the end, he said Friday, “the industry has to take the lead on this” and United’s efforts “will most likely exceed anything regulators will mandate.”

The last time a U.S. carrier introduced such sweeping training changes was in the late 1970s, according to safety experts, when United and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines—now part of Air France-KLM—jointly started designing new procedures and safeguards to get pilots in the same cockpit to work together as a team. In the past decade or so, United implemented extra mandatory training sessions three separate times for all of its pilots, but those focused on narrower issues such as proper fuel management and how to use new computerized flight-planning systems.

This time, United’s safety hierarchy devised new training approaches even as it stepped up monitoring of pilot adherence to mandatory procedures and safeguards.

Describing training changes United was devising in the wake of the incidents, Howard Attarian, senior vice president for flight operations, told an industry conference in Orlando last April they would be aimed at helping captains and co-pilots work more closely. At the time, he said company officials were developing the business case to support such enhanced training modules.

David Woods, an air-safety expert at Ohio State University, described United’s strategy as “a welcome sign that we’re seeing someone step up and reverse the trend” of steadily shrinking overall training time and reduced opportunities for pilots to learn about coping with abnormal events.

United hired 800 pilots last year and over the next five years will hire “several thousand more,” the spokesman said, as senior aviators retire and the airline grows. Some newly hired first officers are being assigned to fly international routes, without the extent of supervised flying they would have received in past years. The extra training is designed, among other things, to teach captains how to solicit and respond to input from junior pilots, according to Messrs. Hobart and Kern.

United, the result of the 2010 merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines, also has been dealing with different cultures among the two pilot groups. But those tensions have abated recently.

The new training program, called Leap, was developed by United, the United branch of the Air Line Pilots Association union and the company headed by Mr. Kern, an expert in the field of human factors in the cockpit. It is being taught at all of United’s pilot crew bases by specially trained pilots, and is in addition to regular recurrent training. Industry practice has pilots returning for refresher classroom courses and proficiency checks in flight simulators about once a year, while supplemental training and other safety updates typically are distributed via computers.

Mr. Kern, a former Air Force pilot and chief executive of Colorado Springs-based Convergent Performance LLC, has worked extensively on fatigue mitigation and the complexities of human-machine interaction in aviation. He has made presentations to airlines as well as labor unions representing pilots and air-traffic controllers.

Mr. Hobart, the United spokesman, declined to put a price tag on the new training initiative.

In the future, Mr. Kern anticipates the program will become “sort of a launching pad” to incorporate better error detection and “the transfer of wisdom” to new pilots. He also expects chunks of the material will be used in recurrent training of all flight crews, as well as upgrade training before promotion to captain.

Write to Andy Pasztor at and Susan Carey at

Published on January 29, 2016

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