Factors That Affect Business Aviation Safety and Culture

Author By Guest Author

We’ve all heard the expression ‘safety culture’ thrown around in the business aviation industry. But, do we really know what it is?

In layman’s terms, it’s a mindset that ‘the only correct way to do things is the right way and that is the only way that we will do things’ — regardless of resource needs, personnel needs, facilities, training, equipment needs, etc.

Safety cultures can, at any given time, be proactive, active or reactive. This depends on the nature of the risk (hazard or error) that the aviation department faces.

A previously unknown risk may require a reactive mitigation. Being made aware of a risk from an outside source may allow that department to be proactive. And, an active department has continual processes in place to identify risks and deal with them.

A safety culture also incorporates a ‘just culture,’ which allows personnel to be forthcoming with mistakes and errors without fear of punishment, and with an expectation of growth, learning and risk reduction from the experience.

Reporting of honest mistakes and errors should result in a learning process for the organization. Errors that are criminal, willful or deliberate will not be tolerated by the organization. A clear investigation matrix will determine the root cause of the error.

Aviation Safety Culture: The Positive and Negative

Safety cultures come in two varieties: positive and negative. Simply put, a positive safety culture is doing the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time—all of the time. Even when no one is watching.

The departmental leadership style, process and technical documentation and stated values set the culture. It takes all four of these components to make a positive safety culture, and if any are missing, that is a negative. Incorrect implementation of any one of the four can also turn a positive culture negative. At the blink of an eye. These cultural values should be adopted, measured and endorsed by all.

By not allowing the flight department to be fully engaged in the tasks and work of the department, there are some processes that can restrict the safety culture, such as personnel staffing, lack of facilities or training. Failure to document can negatively result in each employee deciding how they wish to operate and the potential for higher risk operations.

The alternative choice? Written documentation that defines the operations and provides guidance to participants, ensuring behaviors and results that are proven to lower risk options. That’s very much a positive.

That said, why does safety remain an ongoing concern in the business aviation industry?

Simple. The costs of a crash or incident are so high that they must be avoided at all costs. Generally, the cost of lost or damaged equipment is the lowest of all of the costs, with the personal injury/loss of life and damage to your brand/reputation being incalculable.

While it may be a reality one day, for now no organization is 100% safe. That is, it’s not safe without operational risk.

At the present time, it’s all about identifying risks and the mitigation measures that can be developed.

Business aviation by its very nature brings risks, however, the rewards are worth the constant search to reduce those risks. Proactive risk reductions are available for those who search out risks in the first place.

Finally, remember that complacency is the enemy of risk reduction.

Three Ways You Can Make Your Flight Department Safer

  1. Write/update your flight operations manual. When you document policies, processes and procedures, you are able to quantify behavior that has been shown to reduce risks. Standardization of policies, processes and procedures reduces the “risk” of staff innovation and experimentation. It also takes away ambiguities and clarifies expectations. Clear documentation makes everyone’s job easier and clearer, with more predictable outcomes.
  2. Create a Safety Management System (SMS). The concept of ‘safety’ is not a binary state, but rather, measured on a continuum or analog scale. Thus, embracing an SMS moves the organization further away from potential disaster. No one will ever say you’ll reduce your risk by some precise percentage by implementing a Safety Management System (SMS), but it’s clear to those in the safety business that mitigating risk to the lowest practical level is the desirable end state. An SMS is a structured way of reducing risk and that’s what people ought to look at.
  3. Better organize your reporting data. Hazard and incident reporting are part of the SMS. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say what our efforts in safety have actually prevented because we cannot prove what didn’t happen. If we didn’t have an accident or incident, it could be that our efforts were actually in the right place. If Federal Aviation Regulations Part 91 business aviation operators have a ‘just culture,’ there is an error reporting process in place to report mistakes and errors with the goal of making continuous improvements. Simple mistakes are analyzed to try and determine if we can prevent the same (or similar) mistakes the next time. But it comes down to “Do I trust that if I tell my colleagues that I made a mistake will I be punished?” Over time, this trust will be proven by the leadership team.

How to Make an Organization Unsafe

Which factors play a role in making an organization unsafe?

Many! Fatigue, the ‘rush’ culture, complacency (“I do this every day, so I know what I’m doing”), ego mentality (“Don’t tell me how to do my job!”), closing your mind to constructive criticism, substance abuse (not as relevant in Part 135, 125 & 121 Operators due to drug and alcohol screening), physiology issues, and personal life and distractions from being focused on the job at hand (stress, death, sick child, etc.).

Aviation operations are a 100% game and you need to be 100% focused whether you’re in the right or left seat, maintaining the plane, or making the schedule.

Another contributing factor is that we now have a digital culture. We don’t have conversations anymore because we’re all on our smartphones, checking emails, reading the news, texting our loved ones, and perhaps tweeting or updating our Facebook status.

It really is okay (even recommended) to have a face-to-face conversation, disagreement and/or constructive argument, rather than communicate through electronics, which seem to be so impersonal and easily misunderstood.

Safety is a Top-Down Approach

When it comes to implementing an effective safety culture, remember that leadership starts at the top. It’s hard to push the rope uphill.

If Standard Operating Procedures(SOP’s) haven’t been shared and are not sincerely endorsed by senior leadership, or if someone in your organization is bullying the team to go against safety standards, have your leader initiate a conversation. Some icebreaking conversation starters:

  • “We understand why we’re here. We want to provide a safe service. Given that, there are some restrictions…you hired us for our knowledge and expertise and judgment and you expect us to use this.”
  • “We’re trying to do the job you want us to do.”
  • “We want you and us to walk off the airplane at the end of the day.”

At the end of the day, a solid and effectively implemented safety culture is a win-win not only for the aviation department but for the entire organization.

Guest Author, Roger Baker is the President of Safety Focus Group LLC, a safety review and auditing organization. He can be reached at rogerbaker@safetyfocusgrp.com