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Building a Safety Culture in Corporate Aviation

Posted on: September 29th, 2012 by Pete Agur

Building a Safety Culture in Corporate Aviation


By Peter v. Agur, Jr., Managing Director & Founder

The VanAllen Group, Inc



Aviation safety is not an end destination.  But, it is the most critical part of the journey.  In measuring the safety element of travel, the accident rates of major commercial airlines and corporate aviation are statistically equal.  But with a more universally effective safety culture, corporate aviation will easily assume the undisputed lead as the least hazardous mode of air travel.  A brash claim?  Maybe not!


Original research of accidents involving professionally flown aircraft shows that four out of five events included Procedural Intentional and/or Unintentional Non-Compliance.  PINCs and PUNCs can be reduced dramatically when an effective safety culture exists.


Building a safety culture in a corporate aviation operation is very different from building one in the commercial aviation arena, because:


  • The core businesses are different.  An airline has, as its core business, aviation.  On the other hand, corporate aviation is routinely a supporting service of an enterprise whose core business is not aviation.


  • The goals of the businesses are different.  Commercial aircraft are operated for the purpose of revenue and profit.  Corporate aviation is aServiceCenterin support of the achievement of objectives of core business.


  • The aviation knowledge of top executives is different.  The leaders and senior managers engaged in commercial aviation are usually aviation professionals.  Their counterparts in corporate aviation have no need to know the business and operational issues of the aviation function.


  • Their operational standards are different.  The governing rules of commercial aviation (FARs121, 135 and their international counterparts) are designed to rigorously protect the traveling public.  Corporate aviation is held to the much lower standard of FAR 91.


How is an effective safety culture created and maintained within a corporate aviation operation considering the apparent potential for less focus and discipline?   The corporate safety culture starts at the top, the offices of the CXOs (i.e., CEO, CFO, CAO, etc.), and permeates the entire organization all the way out to the airport, where the rubber meets the tarmac.  The safety culture comes in three parts:

  • Vision,
  • Co-Responsibility, and
  • Performance.


Corporate Aviation Safety Vision.  An effective corporate aviation culture starts with a Vision for Safety.  That Vision comes in two modes; the grand vision of a powerful top executive and the focused vision of the aviation services unit leader.


It is imperative that the corporate top executive describe a vision of safety.  Ideally, the “Chief Safety Officer” is also the chairperson (COB) or the CEO.  If not, then the CSO must be someone who can look that highest of the high directly in the eye and say, “No” without it being a career opportunity.


About fifteen years ago John Luke, Sr., then the CEO of what is now MeadWestvaco, a Fortune 500 company, told me he expected a standard of care from his aviation services that would allow anyone to feel perfectly at ease placing his or her children onboard the company aircraft, every day and every leg.  He said that he expected the standard of care to be the same for everyone; no one was to receive any lesser care than that provided for him.


Not every CEO understands the need for a clear corporate aviation safety vision.  Some take it for granted that the regulations and their pilots will protect them.  One executive was candid enough to say, “I don’t think our pilots are suicidal.  They sit in the seats with the best view.  They can see it coming.”  His optimism was admirable, but the greatest source of fatalities in professionally flown aircraft continues to be Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT).  In other words, his blind trust may have been misplaced.


It is essential that a CXO/Chief Safety Officer be the source and lead champion for the aviation Safety Vision.  That gives the Safety Vision the powerful of the corner office.  And that is why the NBAA recommends Flight Operations Manuals contain a letter from the CXO declaring the corporate aviation Safety Vision and a clear statement of crew authority.  One CEO added within his company’s statement, “Any passenger who challenges the safety-based decisions of a crew during a trip will lose his or her corporate aircraft travel privileges.”  His declaration made it perfectly clear to the entire organization that the responsibility for safety spanned from the corner office clear to the cockpit and cabin.


Co-Responsibility for Safety.  The responsibility for safety is shared throughout the corporate organization.  But it starts at the top.  Bill Esrey, former chairman at Sprint, indorsed a policy that required all frequent corporate aircraft passengers to attend a half day of cabin safety training.  Even though the program was mandatory, the participants were quickly infected with the cultural importance of safety.  The enthusiasm shown by newly appointed aircraft users to attend the course was strong evidence of how the previous graduates were assuming an informal responsibility to promote the program.


Unlike Mr. Esrey, some CXOs mistakenly believe the responsibility for aviation safety rests solely at the airport.  They take their trust in their pilots’ survival instincts too far.  The worst of them mistakenly assume the behaviors they use to achieve success within their core business (demanding more and more of their people and refusing to take “no” for an answer) work at the airport, too.  These rampant rhinos push for 18+ hour duty days, demand to go into Aspen after dusk, or anything else that will accommodate their busy lives.  The pressure they put on crews is rarely subtle.  It is a no-win situation.  That is why the CSO must be directly co-responsible for safety.


But when there is no clear and personal CSO commitment the role of safety champion falls to the corporate aviation manager.  That requires the aviation manager have his or her own strong safety vision as well as the strength of character to champion it despite the lack of authority endowed from a CSO.


To be most effective, co-responsibility for safety must be a core value of the entire organization.  It is hugely egotistical or naive for an aviation department leader or safety officer to assume he or she can manage safety into all phases of the operation.  No manager can be everywhere all the time to make sure everyone performs properly.  No one manager has all the good ideas.  The collective eyes, ears and wisdom of the entire team are far more powerful in assuring safe outcomes.


The power of co-responsibility for safety is fundamental.  It is the foundation of Crew Resource Management (CRM), the defining standard for teamwork among aviation professionals.


Performance is affected by a Safety Culture.  As I have said, safety involves all members of the organization, from the executive suite to the service delivery team.  But aviation professionals are primarily responsible for safe performance.  And safe performance starts with leadership.


It is said that a great leader sets people up to succeed.  For someone to be successful

  • The goals must be clear and measurable,
  • The resources appropriate, and
  • The processes effective.


In aviation, the goals are a clear and inviolate hierarchy of performance:

  1. Safety (which includes security),
  2. Service, and
  3. Efficiency.


Occasionally the priority of the performance of those goals gets confused.  A few years ago I had a conversation with a billionaire who admitted that he demanded his helicopter crew launch into known icing conditions.  His reasoning was, “Why should I have aircraft if I cannot go where I want when I want?”  He clearly had not accepted the primacy of safety as the ultimate and limiting performance goal.  How do you tell a 500 pound gorilla what to do?  You let an 800 pound gorilla deliver the message: to the relief of his flight crews, the billionaire’s board of directors helped him understand they wanted him around for longer than the next trip.


And safe trips start with having the right tools for the job: appropriate resources.


The most obvious corporate aviation resources are the aircraft and its crew.  When I work with companies on their fleet plans I ask executives, “Do you want to be limited by aircraft capacity or staff capacity?”  In other words, does the corporation want to be able to do trips anytime the aircraft is available (not flying and not in maintenance) or is it okay for an aircraft to be mechanically ready to go but cannot be flown because you are out of pilots?  The most frequent response is they want enough pilots to perform the vast majority of trip requests.  This is logical.  After all, you don’t want a fire truck unable to answer the bell because you’re out of firemen.  The value delivered by flight crews is too great for most corporations to skimp on staff.  But it is up to the aviation leader to clearly define the staff requirements and their limitations.  Otherwise, the service delivery team will stretch themselves in an effort to do too much with too few people, raising risks.


The technical resources of corporate aviation can create a safety advantage over its commercial colleagues.  The airlines are constrained by efforts to maintain fleet commonality as well as contain costs.  Many corporations have a policy of aggressive investment in aviation safety; if it enhances safety, it will be shoehorned into the budget.  That is why many of the recently emerged technologies are finding their way into corporate aircraft well in advance of commercial aircraft.  Fully integrated digital avionics suites are the norm for new business aircraft.  In addition, much of the legacy corporate fleet is being retrofitted with digital displays or augmented with supplemental screens for weather uplink, terrain awareness, airport surface moving maps, and a host of others.  All theses technologies improve the crew’s situational awareness, which is a very safe thing.


But the processes used to orchestrate these resources into action are where safe performance is truly achieved.  The standard of performance that is almost universally expected by corporate executives is “Best Practices or better”.  But executives usually don’t know what that really means.  Nor do most aviation professionals because until recently there was no practical definition of Best Practices.  Standard Practices are established by the FAA regulations and manufacturers’ operational guidelines and limitations.  These standards essentially prevent failure.  They are a litany of “Thou Shalts” and “Thou Shalt Nots” that are designed to avoid bent metal and harmed bodies.  Taking performance standards to the next level, to Best Practices, calls for the proactive achievement of intended outcomes, including the assurance of safety.


From a practitioner’s point of view, Best Practices call for the clear definition of the intended outcomes and the ideal processes for creating them.  The next step is to monitor the processes in action and proactively manage variances to assure performance is maintained within the expected parameters.  A practical example of this occurred when Mike May was director of aviation for Southern Company.  His operation included three bases;Atlanta,BirminghamandPensacola.  Travel among those three cities was a significant part of their activities.  During one stormy day Mike happened upon a conversation between a relatively new captain from Birmingham and one of his Atlanta-based old salts.  The youngster was describing how bad the weather was over the ATL-BHM route and that he planned to delay his return trip until things quieted down.  The senior pilot from Atlanta was boasting that he had flown hundreds of flights in identical conditions and he was sure he could leave as scheduled.


Mike asked the senior captain to join him in his office.  In private Mike explained to the senior captain that he needed his help in urging young pilots not to exceed their experiential capabilities, putting aircraft and people at risk.  He then asked the captain how they could do that.  The ensuing conversation became the foundation for a new practice; when there is to be a judgment call, the most conservative perspective will prevail and it will be applied across the board until conditions changed.  In other words, on that particular day nobody would fly towardsBirminghamuntil the weather improved enough to satisfy the young captain.  And nobody could pressure him to change his mind.


The reverse of this safe and effective leadership behavior is the director of aviation or maintenance who declares that policies and standards may be amended with his or her approval.  In other words, the department’s policies and standards are variable.  This approach may appear to be high service (standards can be adjusted to make it easier to complete the mission) but it has two major flaws; it can place service above safety in the hierarchy of performance and it clearly undermines the authority of the safety delivery team, the crew.


Crews are a critical element of one of the most effective Best Practices that is gaining wide acceptance is the Safety Management System (SMS).  The core of SMS’ success is the rigorous application of risk assessment and mitigation encompassing all facets of a trip.  Texas Instruments uses an extremely effective multi-functional approach.  Prior to each trip the scheduler, lead aircraft technician and the crew (including cabin safety attendant) meet to discuss the trip and all its parameters and variables (aircraft, equipment, maintenance status, passengers, cargo and baggage, times, catering, weather, airports, runways, FBOs, ground transportation, et al).  The goal of the meeting is at the heart of SMS, to assure a safe and effective trip that is punctuated by no surprises.  Upon the aircraft’s return home the trip isn’t complete until the same team debriefs about the entire trip, including every leg.  TI has developed an effective and proactive management of the trip process that works well for them.  It keeps the goals of Safety, Service and Efficiency in appropriate order and focus.  It identifies potential risks and variances and then allows the power of team problem solving to produce the most effective guidelines and solutions.


TI has the full compliment of tools:

  • A clear executive and organizational Vision with a strong emphasis on Safety,
  • Culturally driven co-responsibility permitted by a pervasive authority to perform, and
  • Universally understood Standards of Performance couched in a well documented Operations Manual that is implemented effectively through a set of practices and processes structured around SMS.


But TI is the exception.  The vast majority of corporate aviation is being conducted with less than the complete set of tools.  Even so, corporate aviation’s safety rate is parallel to that of the major commercial airlines.  How low will our accident rate be when the TI standard becomes the norm?  Let’s find out together.  Let’s build a widespread corporate aviation safety culture.  It starts with your corporation and your aviation department.


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