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Passenger & Flight Crew Relations: A Potential Minefield

Posted on: March 23rd, 2014 by Pete Agur

World Aircraft Sales November 2013Most Business Aviation professionals are exactly that: professional.  Most Business Aviation passengers are, too.  But when lapses happen, the impact can affect safety, security and costs.  That is when the Board should intervene.

The relationship between flight crewmembers and passengers can have interesting dynamics.  Many pilots consider themselves as special.  We refer to it as the “SkyGod” syndrome.  Contributing to this strong sense of self is the tendency for key passengers to put pilots on pedestals.  Why?  It is natural for us to want to believe the person we trust with our wellbeing is “the best”.  For instance, most of us feel that way about our doctors.  Yet, it is impossible for us all to have the very best doctors and pilots.  This dynamic is why a number of companies have experienced some unfortunate Days of Our Lives distractions caused by well-intended corporate policies or misguided passenger-crew relations.

More than one of our clients has had corporate “diversity in the workplace” efforts create substantially higher Business Aviation operational risks.  The scenario looks like this:  Your company has a core value of diversity, backed by metrics (headcount expectations).  It is a righteous goal.  Your HR department is keeper of the torch and has a great deal of authority ranging from creating candidate slates to assuring conformity.  During a recent round of hiring, HR made it clear the aviation department should hire a minority pilot.  HR created a pool of three candidates, all of whom had less experience than normally required.

The interview process went well.  A young Latin female was the frontrunner.  She demonstrated exceptional social and communications skills.  Even though her flying experience and cockpit skills were substandard, the department manager was coached to “hire her for her attitude and train her for performance”.

Unfortunately, over a two year period she did not respond well to training.  Her flying skills remained substandard and her crew coordination, situational awareness and decision-making skills in the cockpit were still unacceptable (“risk inducing”).

In retrospect, she obviously understood her employment was at risk.  Her response to technical coaching was not to focus on improving.  Instead, she set upon a campaign to deliberately extend her social network into the back of the aircraft.  She aggressively charmed many of the key passengers before, during and after their flights, to the point of neglecting her crew responsibilities.

Unwinding this high risk fur ball will be a tedious and expensive process that will require lots of lawyers, time and money.  The lesson to be learned is that noble intentions should not override critical performance standards lest heightened risks to passengers and costs to the corporation may be incurred.

Looking at a different scenario, a very large company, with great success in its core business, inexplicably experienced decades of instability at the helm of its Business Aviation Department.  No aviation manager lasted more than two years.  From the outside it looked like a series of unfortunate circumstances.  Each departing manager quietly faded into the sunset.  Then the company hired Fred (not his real name).

Fred had exceptional leadership and management experience.  He began to understand the challenges he faced when he discovered top executives knew too much about the inner workings of his department.  Unlike his predecessors, who tried to either ignore the issue or address it internally, Fred reached out to the executive to whom he reported, and beyond.  It took a few conversations over coffee for him to uncover the source of the problem.  Inappropriate conversations were occurring between pilots and passengers.  A group of his captains were anarchists.  They knew that when they subverted their department manager’s authority, they could operate as they pleased, unsupervised.

By explaining the dynamics and unwanted impact of these bumptious backchannel behaviors, Fred was able to invoke top executive intervention with the senior passengers.  The cycle created by this small group of errant pilots and unwitting but willing passengers was broken.  These inappropriate communications resulted in the unnecessary turnover of managers, with an accumulated cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Both of these cases may seem farfetched.  They are not.  In fact, they are not even the most egregious examples.  I’m saving those for after I retire and all parties, innocent or otherwise, are deceased.  I guess that means my lips are sealed, forever.

In the meantime, I urge you, as a Board member, to provide specific guidance that well-intended company policies must be written and implemented in a manner that assures they are not misunderstood or misused.  Don’t allow critical experience standards designed to assure the mitigation of very real operational risks to be overridden by the subordinate objective of social responsibility.  I also recommend that you remind your top executives to maintain only the most professional of communications and relationships with crewmembers.  In kind, you can expect the Business Aviation manager to direct the same from flight crews.  The goal is to prevent inappropriate passenger – flight crew communications practices because they are likely to lead to significantly increased operational risks, unintended costs of distracting proportions and potential damage to the brand.

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