Skills and Knowledge Degradation

The decline in traffic during the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the skills and knowledge of some aviation professional due to a period of inactivity or not having the chance to work at all.  This article will help you to do the following: 

  • Understand the different aspects of skills and knowledge degradation. 
  • Consider how this might impact yourself or your organisations. 
  • Integrate the industry best practices to reduce the risks and help your return to operations.    

This 3-4 minute read is a collaborative safety article developed by colleagues and experts from AESA Spain, Bologna Airport, Eurocontol, FAA, NLR and Thales.

Recent experience

Understanding the contributory factors

Regardless of where you work in aviation or the people whose safety you are responsible for, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on the skills and knowledge of personnel working in the aviation industry. An EASA collaborative group involving NAAs and industry have been working to help understand the problem and provide some best practices that can help reduce the risks. 

The group identified the main contributory factors to be:

  • Lack of Recency: The drastic reduction in traffic means that most aviation professionals are not performing their normal tasks, sometimes they are doing a substantially different job, and sometimes not working at all or at a substantially reduced frequency. The extended period of low recency is both long and affects far more people and organisations at the same time than ever before, which means it is not comparable with more familiar low-recency situations, such as individual sick leave, maternity leave, and extended holidays.
  • Lack of Training:  With widespread lockdown restrictions, simulator and classroom based training ground to a halt during the shutdown period. While organisations are making the effort to ramp up training activity, they face a multitude of challenges ranging from the closure of training centres, lack of simulators, and lack of available instructors and trainers whose instructional knowledge may have also eroded during this period. As a result, refresher and/or recurrent training that has been identified as necessary is taking place at a pace which is insufficient to cope with the predicted traffic increase for this summer season. Furthermore, new or updated procedures have been developed to cope with the changes in operations. With the aforementioned training constraints, aviation professionals may not be effectively trained in the updated systems and procedures upon their return to work.

Review and update your procedures based on the new situation – train accordingly

Leaving existing training programmes as they are is not an effective way to cope with the skills and knowledge degradation during this exceptional period. Not only have staff potentially spent a considerable period of time away from the operation but there are also many new or updated procedures that have been introduced as a result of the pandemic.

Regardless of the domain you work in or the type of activity that you are doing, it is important that you review your existing procedures and update them based on the latest situation if you have not done so already. 

Of course when you change something you need to train your staff in the new/updated procedures. This should be followed up with periodic safety performance checks to verify how things are working in the real world of your operation and backed up by internal audits to ensure that the procedures are fit for purpose and are actually being carried out by your staff. The more you explain the need for any changes you have implemented the more likely they are to be adopted – even better, make sure to involve operational staff in developing any new procedures and training material as early as possible. 

Proposed best practices which are applicable to all aviation domains

The EASA-led Task Team comprising safety experts from different aviation domains have proposed the following best practices which you can consider to address proficiency decay and lack of recent experience within a workforce.

These best practices may not be applicable to all organisations, thus it is important to take your organisation’s nature of operations and key challenges into account when considering which best practices to adopt.

  • When personnel are on furlough or long-term leave
    • Communicate changes to furloughed personnel or personal on long-term leave, to avoid overwhelming personnel with information immediately before they return to work.
    • Maintain training activities during lockdown and low traffic levels when possible.
    • Promote digital/remote training and use webinars to update staff on critical training areas.
    • Introduce periodic refresher training and integrate new or changed operations early in refresher training.
  • When preparing personnel to return to work
    • Ensure gradual return to normal operations to allow for re-familiarisation.
    • Identify which skills and job functions are most at risk, and provide tailored training where possible.
    • Stimulate and facilitate mental rehearsal, in formal training, self-training and operations briefings/preparation.
    • Introduce self-reflection and -assessment programs to detect/prevent over- and under-confidence.
    • Introduce mandatory pre-shift briefings to update personnel of recent and on-going changes.
    • Increase supervision and support staff as much as possible.   
  • Other best practices for organisations and National Aviation Authorities (NAAs)/National Supervisory Authorities (NSAs)
    • Postpone planned changes to equipment and procedures which are not critical or relevant to the pandemic.
    • Risk-based assessment should be conducted for deviations from existing training programmes. It is also important to ensure that the deviations are still in line with existing regulations and/or exemptions.
    • NAAs/NSAs to ensure that exemptions are issued only after risk assessments have been conducted.
Pilot experience

Next steps

The task team is now working on additional information to help you understand safety issue further by developing more information on the following areas:

  • Risk mechanism of proficiency decay
  • Factors affecting proficiency decay

Sector-specific proficiency decay considerations

We will shortly add more information for each of the different domains and aviation professional groups:

  • Aerodrome Operator and Ground Handling Staff
  • Air Traffic Control Officers
  • Cabin Crew
  • Commercial Flight Crew
  • Maintenance Engineers

It is important to be aware of the compounding effect of the degradation of skills across the different types operations. Although each type of operation must address its unique proficiency decay risks, they must also consider how risk may affect adjacent operations. The interaction of risk from the different domains inevitably contributes to the weakening of safety barriers of the European aviation industry as a whole when viewed from a systems perspective. Thus, it is in aviation community’s interest to address this safety issue across the different domains in a concerted manner to manage the risk factors stemming from the respective domains.

Link: https://www.easa.europa.eu/community/topics/skills-and-knowledge-degradation

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