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Looking to make aviation training greener, more accessible

Already beset with hardships due to the pandemic and resultant lockdowns, the airline industry is facing other challenges, particularly when it comes to growing environmental concerns and efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The education sector, too, is struggling through the pandemic given issues with in-person learning, for instance. Post-pandemic changes are also likely.

Enter the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA), which has launched a student-focused competition to help foster the sustainable flight schools of the future. The University of Waterloo organization has partnered with the Breslau-based Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC), Alsim Flight Training Solutions and the Region of Waterloo International Airport to host the competition, which offers the winners some $8,500 in total prize money.

The goal is to involve students in coming up with creative ways to make flight instruction not only greener but also more cost-effective, says UW Prof. Suzanne Kearns, director of WISA.

She sees the likes of electric aircraft, next-generation flight simulators and virtual reality helping to reduce carbon and noise emissions while reducing training costs.

“We wanted to really think creatively how we can bring students into this conversation, because the reality is it’s their voice, which was such a huge motivator,” she said. We’re wanting to solve future problems, the problems they’ll be inheriting  when they graduate and go into the world.

“We’re very open to what the students come up with, and we hope they use their creativity to come up with things we haven’t thought of. But some of the things that we expect will probably be reflected in the designs are electric aircraft , which are only practical today in lightweight aircraft that are used for shorter trips – just the nature of how heavy the batteries are limits the range, but that does open the door for electric aircraft to be used for flight training purposes. It seems like that’s probably the low-hanging fruit or the easiest sector of aviation to become electric.”

“The competition promises to spark a holistic rethinking of the aviation training sector as hubs for green innovation,” said Bob Connors, general manager of WWFC, in a release announcing the new competition that got underway last week. “We are seeking inspirational ideas, exciting designs, and new directions towards a more sustainable future for the air transport training sector.”

Training is likely to be a hot topic in the industry, which was already suffering through an international shortage of pilots and other crew members prior to a pandemic that has seen employees leave to find work in other sectors.

The Pilot Demand Outlook report compiled by Montreal-based simulator titan CAE sees a global need for 260,000 pilots by the end of this decade alone.

According to the 2020-2029 CAE Pilot Demand Outlook, retirement and attrition are expected to continue to be a challenge for the civil aviation industry as air travel recovers progressively, leading to an acute demand for pilots.

Kearns notes that aircraft builder Boeing is projecting 612,000 new pilots will be needed between 2021 and 2040.

She adds that airlines also have a need for cabin crews, maintenance workers and host of others needed to keep their operations running even as downturns have seen the existing workforce leave to find jobs elsewhere.

The pandemic has also had an impact on the ability to train the likes of new pilots.

“The pandemic caused a backlog in training. The results of that is at the University of Waterloo, we have Canada’s largest university-level aviation program, but we have had to cut our intake in half, both this year and next year, because of the backlog in training,” said Kearns. There’s been a lot of talk about aviation returning to pre-pandemic levels, but when it does, so it’s doing so with a workforce that was already facing international shortages, and then so many have left and the training pipeline has been reduced that it creates a real critical challenge to get enough people to make the sector work.”

Prior to the pandemic, the university was enrolling about 120 first-year students – the capacity of the flight school – but now that number is 60. The hope is to bring that back up in a year or two, said Kearns.

In that environment, the competition makes sense as a way to both help the industry innovate and make training more affordable to remove barriers to future pilots. Now underway, the competition will see judges choose the top three designs on May 27, while the final student presentations and winners’ announcements will be at the WISA annual general meeting on June 24.

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