Highlighting the Human Aspect of Aviation Sustainability

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Complex Problems Require Multidisciplinary Work

For many - including Dr. Elizabeth Irving, a professor in the School of Optometry and Vision Science - collaborating with researchers in different disciplines means you are sometimes surprised by where life leads you.

“You don’t know what opportunity is going to pop up in front of you,” said Irving. “The reason I am so excited about WISA and think it can have such a tremendous impact is WISA's interdisciplinary approach. The aviation industry presents a vastly complicated set of problems. One person can’t solve this. Complicated problems need many people with different ideas and backgrounds working together to solve them and WISA is creating that exact environment.”

When the opportunity arose to join Dr. Suzanne Kearns in the new Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA), Irving, a highly accomplished vision researcher, was offered a seat at the table; specifically, to represent the social sustainability pillar - one of three that WISA was founded and built upon.

“My vision for the social sustainability pillar is to highlight the human aspects of aviation sustainability so that they become an integral part of overall sustainability with equal consideration to the environmental and economic issues facing the industry,” said Irving.

While there are many social issues challenging the aviation industry, the one Irving is focussed on is the shortage of pilots as well as the quality of their training.

Elizabeth Irving Portrait

Reframing Vision Standards for Pilots

Irving’s research challenges whether the vision standards required for pilots throughout their careers are stricter than they should to be. Reframing vision standards increases the pool of potential pilots and fosters retention. Because visual medical standards apply to pilots throughout their entire careers, a pilot is susceptible to losing their pilot license if they experience an unexpected medical issue. For many, this may mean also losing their career and income.

“If you make the standards too stringent, you cut down the number of people who can be pilots,” said Irving. “Preliminary data is suggesting that there may be opportunity to relax some of these standards or change how we think about them entirely.”

This research looks at linking medical standards to requirements for performance and safety rather than linking it to arbitrary thresholds.

Re-imagining the Future of Pilot Training

The second goal of the research is to increase efficiency and quality of pilot training via evidence-based competencies rather than prescribed hours.

Done in conjunction with Ewa Niechwiej-Szwedo, associate professor in kinesiology and health sciences; Shi Cao, associate professor in systems design engineering; and Suzanne Kearns, associate professor of aviation and founding director of WISA, the research looks at requirements for pilot competence and aims to increase the efficiency and objectivity of training assessment through eye movement monitoring. It asks, are there more objective ways of training pilots?

Though pilots need a certain number of hours to train and get their license, there has been a move in the industry where they’re looking at pilots to define the specific indicators of competence needed to be able to complete certain tasks. If it takes a pilot five hours instead of 10 to do that, or if some of the training can be done in a simulator instead of an aircraft, they will have saved emissions, time, and money.

Maintaining a sustainable workforce is a key element of sustainability. Irving’s works aims to ensure that a sufficient number of competent workers are available to meet industry standards.

Mentoring and Researching Paves the Way for Impact

Irving is enthusiastic about creating opportunities for the next generation of pilots and aviation researchers. Only about six per cent of pilots are women, and Irving stresses the need for a focus on equity in the industry.

“It’s about paving the way and leading by example,” said Irving. “What I’ve always wanted in my life is to make a difference.” Irving acknowledged that while being the first may be difficult, it’s worthwhile; it creates ripple effects that go on further that one may have imagined possible.

“They don’t call us trailblazers for nothing.”