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Real Time Risk Management

Posted on: September 29th, 2012 by Pete Agur

Real Time Risk Management – The Next Major Opportunity for Improved Safety


  Sometimes two heads are not better than one.  Sometimes two heads are not enough.  When trip conditions are changing rapidly or the situation is far outside the norm, timely and digestible additional information and ideas can make the difference in both safety and service.


Not long ago a corporate flight crew departed from Detroit (DTW) for White Plains (HPN) in their large cabin aircraft.  They had six of their company’s top executives onboard.  Since neither DTW nor HPN was their home base, the crew completed their Risk Assessment and Risk Mitigation form in isolation.  In other words, they did what most corporate aviation crews do every day; they self-dispatched.


Their department was IS-BAO registered.  As was their norm, the flight crew followed the form and format of their established Safety Management System (SMS).  This included conducting a pre-flight trip leg risk management process that included identification, assessment and development of their mitigation strategies and tactics.  Dominant in their risk assessment that day was a dry high energy cold front passing through theWhite Plainsarea during their arrival window.  They agreed to pay particular attention to the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) and pull in other weather reports as they entered theNew Yorkarea.


Unknown to the crew, while they were en route, at least six commercial and corporate flights aborted either takeoffs or landings inNewarkand Tetrboro due to extreme winds, wind shear conditions and strong low level turbulence.  Things had gotten so exciting that a small group of aviation department members whose offices were adjacent to the threshold of the active HPN runway gathered to watch the show.  However, the crew had no easy way of accessing all of this important information.


As they neared the HPN area, the ATIS reported surface winds were gusty but less than 20 knots from about 60 degrees off runway heading.  During their entry onto the final approach, they noted their onboard instruments indicated the actual winds at the outer marker were nearly 50 knots.  At the middle marker they asked for a “wind check”.  Conditions remained very different on the ground and aloft.  As they flared for touchdown, severe turbulence caused the aircraft to roll in both directions requiring full aileron input to recover.  Although it was a rough landing no passengers were injured.  They were all belted in and their gear was properly stowed.  However, during the post flight walk around, the crew discovered they had damaged a wingtip by ground contact during the landing.


These pilots considered themselves “lucky”.  But if their department had been using Real Time Risk Management measures, they might not have needed any luck at all.


What are Real Time Risk Management measures?  The airlines have used them for decades.  Professional dispatchers constantly track weather and other critical variables that can adversely affect a trip.  When conditions warrant, the dispatchers contact their crews en route to alert them to what is happening, describe potential risks and suggest mitigating options.


It is a point of pride among many business aviation pilots that they aren’t coddled like their airline kin.  They aren’t handed a briefing and a flight plan and told what to do and how to do it.  Most business aviation pilots consider themselves problem solvers and Jacks and Jackies of all trades.  No matter where their heads are, it is a simple fact that the vast majority of business aviation flight crews are on their own.  They do their own preflight planning and preparation.  They might even believe they are ready for “whatever”.  That kind of sense of superiority and independence sounds a lot like the arguments we heard before Crew Resource Management (CRM) emerged in the ‘70s, doesn’t it?


There are a few business aviation departments that have gotten past the threat of inappropriate independence.  They have discovered the power of additional support in the risk mitigation and trip management processes. Atlanta’s Cox Enterprises is one of them.  During a visit to their facilities, I had the opportunity to see first hand how they do it.  Recnetly one of their Hawkers was returning from the DC area to home atFultonCountyCharlieBrownAirport.  It was mid-morning.  Lines of convective weather associated with a moist cold front were developing fast over the aircraft’s route.  Their licensed dispatcher, Dave Small, was tracking the flight and the weather on his high definition display.  He called the crew to recommend a routing change to the backside of the weather.  The crew readily accepted the suggestion.  It wasn’t long before the original route became a mess with other crews asking to divert due to severe turbulence and heavy precipitation.  The Cox crew reported they completed the trip with nary a ripple.  The Cox team had effectively identified a significant risk and mitigated it, real time.


Following my observations of the Cox Enterprises processes, I talked with numerous members of other departments about the use of home-based staff to support trip risk identification and mitigation.  In general, there were two camps of response:  1 – Whole hearted endorsement with immediate implementation or 2 – Quick excuses as to why it cannot work in their department because of lack of staff.  Certainly not every department has a scheduler or dispatcher.  And many schedulers are not trained to interpret weather data effectively.  But most departments have other pilots who are.


As an example, George Adams is the Director of Aviation for a single long range aircraft operation based out ofNaples,Florida.  His department does not have either a scheduler or a dispatcher.  But for yearsAdamshas acted as a resource to his crew when they are in the air.  He routinely monitors weather, ATC routing patterns, crew duty and workload issues as well as anything else that is a potential threat to the safety or service of their trip.  He communicates with the crew, via voice and digital messaging, to let them know what to expect as well as to give them options to be considered.


For instance, when they are making a return trip fromEurope, the non-trip pilot confirms customs and quick-turn fuel arrangements are in place at the technical stop site.  He assesses the crew’s duty times, previous rest cycle and trip operating conditions to help them decide whether they should continue towards their maximum allowable duty day limits or to call it quits early.  Based on their collaborative decision, the non-trip pilot then further reduces the flight crew’s workload by filing their flight plan for the next leg.


Dave Small, George Adams and a number of others have recognized that blending CRM and SMS has a very positive impact on trip outcomes.  As the Director of Aviation,Adamsdidn’t have much difficulty implementing his program.  He had the authority to enforce it.  Small, as a Senior Dispatcher, didn’t.


In 1999 Cox’s department made a conscious decision to elevate their operating standards to “Best Practices or better”.  Since then they have implemented a number of changes, including improving the capabilities of their people through a variety of training and education initiatives.  For instance, their schedulers are now licensed dispatchers.  They have also upgraded their office information systems to include real time flight tracking, digital weather displays, and ground-to-air voice and digital communications links.


The tipping point for Cox’s dispatcher support of trip crews came when the air traffic system shutdown during the aftermath of 9/11.  It gave Small a heightened awareness of how the home-based Cox aviation team could be a powerful tool in support of crews during trips.  He clearly understood the opportunity right away.  In the beginning some of his captains didn’t.  With the endorsement of his Director of Aviation, Small began to warn crews of the projected arrival of thunderstorms at their locations or destinations, ATC routing patterns, and other factors that would impact trips and their planning.  Today it is normal for him to contact a crew en route to alert them of conditions they will be encountering.  They have come to value their dispatchers’ information and suggested alternative approaches.  Yet, the entire Cox team is very clear the ultimate responsibility for the flight’s decisions remains with the crew.


The measures that both Small and Adams employ are tools rarely used by business aviation departments every day.  They both are certain of the results; improved safety, service and costs.  Implementing their programs required modest investments in hardware and software.  And like all things safety related, they both indicate the biggest challenges they faced to the successful implementation of Real Time Risk Management were people related.


Small admits his enthusiasm for supporting trips on the road wasn’t received with open arms on all quarters.  Some “old school” captains politely declined his offers of service in the beginning.  But over time even the most independent souls have been won over.


During my conversations with leaders and managers of aviation departments about the concept and practice of Real Time Risk Management, I have found a substantial proportion of the responses to be less than enthusiastic.  The most often stated barrier was “we don’t have the people”.  But if you have a scheduler / dispatcher, you do have the people.  Or if you have a third pilot, you do have the people.  If you don’t have a scheduler or a third pilot, then you need even stronger onboard technology (like XM weather uplink) to give you every edge you can get.


And if you do have the bodies, you need to make certain you have their heads and their hearts in the right places.  Many schedulers were hired to be the customers’ link with the department.  They may not have needed any kind of in-depth aeronautical knowledge and expertise when they were hired.  But if you have attended the NBAA Schedulers and Dispatchers Conference, you know this segment of aviation professionals is full of bright, enthusiastic people who are aggressively seeking ways to help their departments and their customers succeed.  Real Time Risk Management is right up their alley.


On the other hand, if you use a non-trip pilot as your risk identifier and solution vendor, you have a different set of opportunities.  Is he or she appropriately trained and experienced to assess developing weather patterns?  If not, you can easily buy some time from a certified meteorologist.  Have a professional weather guesser come to your department and provide a half day or more of introductory training on weather depiction technology and suggested sources of up-to-date information.


Some of the other objections I have heard to Real Time Risk Management are more administrative than they are substantive.  “How are you going to get a pilot to do this on his day off?”  ”Won’t we be interfering with the rest cycle for the off-duty crew member?”  The answer to the first question is relatively easy.  Certainly the equitability of additional duties must be rewarded appropriately and effectively.  But, if he is more concerned about his time off than the safety of his coworkers and customers, maybe he should consider flying freight.


As to the second point, quality of work life does deserve strong consideration.  The hierarchy of benefits to the department and your customers are worth establishing administrative processes that assure crew work life balance. Adamsindicates this is relatively easy in a smaller department because there is only one trip in motion at a time.  Using his laptop and Blackberry, he finds it easy to track the progress of trips as well as communicate with his crew while they are on the ground or in the air.  In doing so,Adamssays he doesn’t take much away from work or personal time.


It is a fact that Real Time Risk Management improves the quality of operational safety and service.  The biggest investment for most business aviation departments (whether they be charter, fractional, managed or internal) will be time.  I challenge you to immediately implement Real Time Risk Management in your department.  Because when it comes to safety, there is no better time than now.

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