Bhanu Choudhrie on Innovating for a New ‘Digital First’ Post-Covid Economy
Bhanu Choudhrie is the founder of Alpha Aviation Group (AAG), which provides simulator training for commercial airline pilots. This industry is notoriously slow to change, but the pandemic is forcing it to adapt far more quickly than it normally does. AAG is a leader in innovation, including a digital-first, simulator-driven approach to commercial pilot training.
Choudhrie founded AAG in 2006 to find more cost-effective ways of training pilots flying for budget airlines. These airlines lack the financial resources of major carriers to develop their own comprehensive training programs, so they must outsource much of their training. AAG was one of the first training providers to offer Multi-Pilot Licensing (MPL) when industry regulators approved. MPL makes greater use of simulators than traditional training, effectively reducing the required in-flight training from 230 hours to 70 hours.
This reduction in flight time allows AAG to meet the needs of budget airlines by training their pilots as they increase the size of their fleet. The accelerated program also means that pilots can be trained in no more than two years, as opposed to over five years for a traditional program. Furthermore, more simulator time significantly reduces training costs.
AAG’s approach to training also improves safety standards for new pilots. Traditional programs begin their training on small planes to teach basic concepts before progressing to larger ones for operating procedures. In contrast, AAG exposes pilots to the passenger jets they’ll be flying very early in the training process. This approach is increasingly beneficial as these planes become more technologically advanced.
The need for a condensed MPL program required AAG to invest heavily in flight simulators, which have already paid for themselves. The company currently operates 11 simulators, with the most recent addition being an Airbus A320 2.0 simulator located in the Philippines. AAG has trained over 1700 pilots in Asia to date, along with many others in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In total, cadets from at least 40 countries are currently enrolled in AAG’s programs.
Resistance to Change
The innovations that AAG has brought to the pilot training industry were long overdue as traditional training methods for pilots are based on the programs that were created shortly after World War II. Little real advancement has occurred in this area during the 80 years since then, despite the technological developments in the planes themselves. Pilot training isn’t the only aspect of the aviation industry that has been slow to change. Airlines and the regulations that control them have also evolved slowly until COVID-19 became a global pandemic early in 2020.
However, Choudhrie is positive about the immediate decisions that airlines made when the pandemic first struck. While there were complaints as one would expect, he says “We have a lot of airlines who took the unprecedented steps early on to stop flying. I think that was a very good move.” This praise is focused on public health rather than the economic impact on the airlines, as the grounding helped slow the spread of COVID-19. Choudhrie justified this decision by saying “This will safeguard the transmission of COVID-19 globally.”
Choudhrie is more critical of the immediate response to the pandemic by governments, especially when it comes to supporting major airlines. He specifically mentions the examples of Air France and KLM, which received major financial assistance from their respective governments. In contrast, smaller airlines received very little aid during the same period. Choudhrie has criticized this practice by saying, “That is not a right approach. I think, if there is a program, the program should be extended to everybody.”
Choudhrie has made a number of long-term predictions when discussing the airline industry’s long-term future. He has also stated that the projections made before COVID-19 will need to be changed somewhat, although he is still generally optimistic about the industry’s prospects over the long term. For example, Boeing projected that airlines would need at least a half-million pilots to fly their planes by 2034 – Choudhrie points out that this number should be reduced given the lasting impact on air travel the pandemic is likely to have.
The current demographics of commercial pilots are currently skewed towards higher age demographics, meaning many of them will retire in the next few years. However, Choudhrie doesn’t believe the need for new pilots will drop dramatically as a result of Covid-19. He also emphasizes that the need for forecast revisions due to COVID-19 applies to all companies in the aviation industry, including AAG. As Choudhrie explains, “There are going to be airlines re-looking at their numbers, but I think they (airlines) will be very prudent in how they are planning their future.”
He also specifically addresses the issue of the number of flights that airlines should schedule. Airlines have already been forced to drastically reduce their flight schedules, or completely ground their fleets as a result of COVID-19. In addition, Choudhrie believes that airlines will need to seriously consider reducing their fleet size and cut costs in other ways when they do resume their fleet schedule. He points out that the present time presents a great opportunity to do this since airlines aren’t very busy right now.
The Post-Pandemic Aviation Industry
COVID-19 is driving rapid developments in aviation, which is surprising given this industry’s historical resistance to change. While airlines quickly grounded flights to slow the pandemic, they will also need to implement long-term changes in the future to remain competitive. An unprecedented rate of technological innovation is likely to accompany this process as airlines resume flights.
Choudhrie hopes to implement changes in pilot training that include making training more accessible in remote locations. AAG has been working with government regulators on this and other issues to ensure they continue to address them after the initial crises pass. Choudhrie believes the aviation industry will greatly benefit from these changes in the long run, despite the mistakes it will inevitably make.