Checking In: the Crucial Competencies for Pilots


Training pilots is expensive. Airlines will invest significant sums in providing intensive study, simulator sessions and flight training to develop their cadets and first officers into captains. Because many people dream of becoming a pilot, there is never a shortage of applicants for these roles.

But airline recruiters are looking for much more than the ability or the potential to fly an aircraft. They want individuals who can lead a team, handle multiple tasks, keep a cool head under pressure, provide a great in-flight experience, set an example to the crew and be a brand ambassador for the airline. People with all of these qualities are not easy to find.

The essence of great recruitment is of course to know what you’re looking for. Following a pioneering study, assessment company cut-e (now Aon) has identified not only the specific competencies that captains, first officers and cadets need to successfully undertake their jobs but also the key behaviours that should be assessed for each role. The study involved literature reviews, job analysis findings, empirical evidence gathering, involving 27,000 flight team members across 12 different airlines, and global validation research.

As a result of this study, it is now possible to create a ‘profile’ of the job-related competencies and behaviours required in every flight crew role, which recruiters can select against when hiring cadets, first officers and captains. By assessing whether candidates fit this profile, in the early stages of the recruitment process, airlines can sift out applicants who are unsuitable. In other words, they can focus their attention solely on the individuals who have the potential to succeed.

A new competency model

The required operational, personal interaction and motivational competencies are broadly similar for cadets, first officers and captains. Aspects such as safety orientation; decision-making; customer and commercial orientation; teamwork; interpersonal skills; resilience; self discipline; dedication; drive and an interest in self-development are relevant for each role. However, there are subtle differences in the competencies required at each level. For example, the ability for individuals to plan and organise themselves is an important competency for cadets but it becomes less relevant as individuals gain more experience and seniority.

Importantly, as individuals progress in their careers, they’ll need to complete different tasks before, during and after each flight. They’ll take on additional responsibilities as they progress, such as leading the crew, delegating tasks and taking charge in emergency situations. This means that, although the core competencies are broadly similar for each role, different ‘behaviours’ will be required of captains, first officers and cadets. For example, a captain’s role will involve leading the team and resolving any conflict, whereas a cadet’s role is more about respecting the rules and contributing to the team’s success.

Assessing the core competencies

When recruiting cadets, first officers or captains, airlines will naturally need to check whether candidates have the technical capabilities required for the role. Ability tests which measure aspects such as inductive and deductive reasoning, spatial orientation and precision can help with this. These tests will show whether a candidate is ‘capable’ of performing well in a role. However it’s also important to assess the competencies and behavioural preferences of candidates, to ensure they’ll be able to master the tasks and challenges they’ll face.

This can be achieved using a personality questionnaire that assesses work-related behaviour and a second questionnaire that measures the probability of counterproductive behaviour in a work context. These assessments will reveal ‘how’ a candidate is likely to perform in the role. The results can be combined to create a ‘behavioural fit report’ for each candidate, showing a profile of how they compare against the required competencies.

The behavioural fit report can also flag up personal or psychological aspects that should be explored further in an interview. For example, the personality questionnaire may reveal that an individual has a tendency to make poor decisions under stress. An interviewer may wish to probe this finding, or to find out how the candidate deals with their emotions, to determine whether the candidate has the competencies that are required in order to deal with all the challenges a pilot might face before, during and after flight.

This feature of the report is not designed to replace a clinical interview. It simply makes recruiters aware of some of the potential risks that may apply for each candidate. Pilots will face the challenge of working shifts, and being away from home frequently, which can affect their work-life balance and be socially disruptive. Best practice is for airlines to undertake regular psychological evaluations of their current and potential flight staff, to check on their mental health and wellbeing.

Better informed selection

Assessing candidates against a behavioural fit profile of the required competencies will ultimately enable airlines to predict which individuals will be able to safely and successfully fulfil the roles of captains, first officers and cadets. Doing this early on in the selection process will mean that only suitable candidates will progress to the later and more expensive stages. This reduces the number of unsuitable candidates who attend assessment centres, interviews and simulator trials.

Another benefit is that the data gained from any assessments undertaken as part of the recruitment process can also be used to create a personal learning plan to develop the successful candidates, as it will reveal their strengths and limitations.

Airlines have an ongoing need to recruit skilled pilots who can not only navigate and fly their aircraft but who are also committed to the safety of their passengers and crew, and passionate about delivering world-class customer service. By gaining a greater insight into the suitability of each applicant, recruiters can make more informed selection decisions that will achieve these objectives.

Learn more about online assessment for the aviation sector.

About the Author

Aon creates smart measurement solutions with valid and innovative online assessment products. Aon is globally the preferred partner for organisations who demand the best.

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