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Plane Talk

Your Dog is Ugly II – All Dogs – New Tricks

Posted on: September 29th, 2012 by Pete Agur

All Dogs – New Tricks

A zero accident rate is the goal of every aviation operation.  But zero accidents is only one measurement of success for a Best Practices flight department. Changing the focus from accident free to Best Practices isn’t just the manager’s responsibility, however. It is the co-responsibility of the entire team, starting at the top.

Hello, I’m Lee Smith, retired director of aviation for a large company. The last issue of NBAA’s Journal of Business Aviation chronicled a slightly painful process involving me and my former boss, Bill Williams, and his friend, Mr. Hansen. We had to tell Mr. Hansen, chairman and CEO of a Fortune 500 company, that his aviation department (consisting of a single mid-sized jet with three pilots but no technician or scheduler) had been performing below what is widely accepted as “Best Practices.”

The message was delivered in no uncertain terms. In fact, Bill told his friend that “his dog was ugly”. The toughest part of the message was that the flight department was not solely at fault for its mediocre performance. It started at the top, in the office of the chairman and CEO. He is the leader of the company and the ultimate authority, and his aviation department was simply delivering what he allowed them to.

Following our initial meeting, Mr. Hansen asked for a little time to reflect on what he had heard from us. What follows is an account of how, with his support, Mr. Hansen’s aviation department set course on a journey from where they were to where they wanted to be—a Best Practices aviation department.



The week after the initial meeting, Mr. Hansen called me to see if I would be available to consult with his aviation department and act as a mentor to his director of aviation, Tim Henderson. I’m the kind of guy who is never satisfied with just identifying a problem; I want to be part of the solution. I said yes, on one condition: that Mr. Hansen and Tim co-sponsor my involvement. I wanted both of them to have a sense of ownership in the process and its outcomes.

I asked Mr. Hansen to have Tim join us for a meeting. I wanted to confirm some of the basics for the project. I had already begun to prepare by doing some research on the company. I knew they owned a restaurant chain specializing in full service for three meals a day. They positioned themselves as a provider of high value for medium cost, and focused on creating that value by serving great food in a friendly environment with excellent service.

I opened our meeting by asking Mr. Hansen what he expected from his aviation services. “Lee,” he answered, “I want five things from our aviation department. The first three are Safety, Safety, and Safety. Then I want our senior management team and their designees to be able to go where they want to go, when they want to go, in the style that is consistent with our company’s culture. And then, just like in our restaurants, I will treasure every nickel they save making that happen.”

I asked, “Are there any sacred cows when it comes to the aviation department?”

“By ‘sacred cows’ I assume you are asking if anyone or anything should not be on the table in consideration of change? I am comfortable with who we allow to use the aircraft. I am also fine with the two mid-sized aircraft we have right now. Using that as a starting point, I am looking forward to your recommendations on how our aviation services can rise to, and remain at, the Best Practices standard.”

Mr. Hansen then turned to his director of aviation. “Tim, you and I have flown a lot of miles together. I know you are a professional. But I also know that throughout my career I have been successful by reaching out to people a lot smarter than me to help me make our business even better. I have asked Lee to do that for you and your team. Use Lee as a resource and a tool for your success. Do you have any questions or concerns?”

Tim looked thoughtful for a minute and then said, “I realize this is a career opportunity for me and our flight department. I am, however, having a hard time believing we’re as bad as you’ve been told.”



Mr. Hansen lowered his voice and replied, “Tim, listen carefully to what I’m about to say. If I thought you and your team didn’t have the potential for achieving the performance we need, this would be an exit interview. But, I do and it’s not. On the other hand, I do know we need help getting from where we are to where we want to be. That’s why I’ve asked Lee to help. I’m leaving it up to the two of you to work together to make it happen. Now, if there is nothing else gentlemen, I have another group of folks waiting for me. Let me know what you need from me and you’ll have it. Thank you both. You have my full support.”

As Tim and I walked out of the headquarters building Tim remarked, “That is as close to a woodshed session as I’ve ever had with Mr. Hansen.”

“I don’t think it was as much of a thrashing as it was an attention-getter,” I responded. “He obviously has a great deal of respect and affection for you and your people. But his expectations have changed with new information. I think he was being very clear that he wants you to be successful in meeting those new goals.”

“What goals?” Tim shrugged “He didn’t talk about goals. He told me he wants us to ‘achieve the level of performance we need.’ What does that mean?”

“Let’s go back to the hangar, grab a cup of coffee, and talk it through,” I said.



When we arrived at the hangar I suggested we go in the conference room where there was plenty of room to talk. I wanted us to be able to mark down some of the ideas we would be discussing.

I opened the conversation. “Tim, you’re over the first and biggest hurdle. You have top management’s sponsorship and commitment for the changes you are going to make. You wouldn’t believe how many aviation departments don’t get that. If you didn’t have that sponsorship you’d have to sell him on every initiative you want to implement. And I’ll tell you, selling uphill is a real grind.”

“Lee, I understand that loud and clear. But what I don’t understand is that you think we’re not safe. We’ve been operating this flight department for fifteen years and we’ve never had a flight-related incident. In fact, I think we are the best operation on the airport.”

“Tim, thank you for being so open about your concerns. First, no one said you were unsafe. What I did say is that you are not doing as much as you can to minimize risks. In fact, some of the things you are doing actually raise your risks. Safety has little to do with not having accidents. It has a lot to do with identifying and mitigating risks. But before we get down into the weeds on that, let me ask you a couple of questions. What business is your aviation department in?”

“We are in the time savings and mobility business,” Tim responded. “We save our key passengers lots of time and get them where they need to be safely and comfortably.”

“That’s a good start,” I noted. “What is different about that and what a good aircraft management company, charter company, or fractional aircraft services provider does?”

“Well, Mr. Hansen has said more than a few times he really appreciates the sense of confidence he gains from seeing the same faces in the cockpit. That’s one of the reasons we have worked so hard to avoid crew turnover.”

“Is that a case of great judgment on his behalf, or is it more a case of ‘preferring the devil you know over the devil you don’t know?’” I asked.

“Lee, I’m not being defensive,” Tim said, “but over the years our pilots have learned to fly and work together really well.”



“I don’t doubt for a minute you all do a lot of things right,” I said. “For instance, I saw a lot of excellent airmanship during the flights I observed. All of you are doing a lot of things right. But, you and your team need to work on doing more of the right things. What is your department’s priority of performance?” I asked.

“Safety, service, and efficiency,” Tim recited.

“That’s exactly what Mr. Hansen said, too. Let’s dig a little deeper. How do you achieve safety?” Tim responded immediately. “You don’t have accidents,” he said. “Does that mean a near miss is a safe thing?”

“Of course not. What are you getting at, Lee?”

“The traditional definition of safety is exactly what you said—to avoid accidents. That approach is the Standard Practice. But over the years we have learned that simply preventing failure, avoiding accidents, is not enough. As a result, the bar has been raised to a new and better standard of Best Safety Practices.”

“What’s the difference?” Tim asked.

“Avoiding accidents is essentially an approach designed to prevent failure. It’s full of thou shalt nots, as in thou shalt not fly too fast, too slow, too high, too low, when tired…you get the picture. Accident avoidance is a compliance model of management. The assumption is, if you can get people to do exactly what you say, they will never fail. That’s why you see some flight operations manuals (FOMs), standard operating procedures (SOPs), and maintenance operations manuals (MOMs) that are excessively detailed. They are designed to be complied with.”

I continued. “There are two basic problems with the compliance model of management in business aviation. First, the FOMs, MOMs, and SOPs cannot be comprehensive enough to cover all situations. Second, you, the manager, cannot be everywhere all the time to make sure everyone always complies with the rules.”

“Lee, that’s why I hired such good people,” Tim explained. “I expect them to use their heads.”



“Yet, traditional management practices in an aviation department work against that expectation,” I noted. “You try to control your people’s behaviors and performance by telling them to comply with SOPs, the FOM, and MOM. Then you expect them to perform to those standards and practices unsupervised because you cannot be at the hangar every day or in the cockpit for every flight.”

Tim shook his head. “Like I said, that’s why I hired good people. I expect them to do things right even when they aren’t being watched.”

“Tim, to be blunt, that approach isn’t working. Consider the fact that the accident rate for relocation flights is five times that of passenger flights. What that tells us is that crews, when they don’t feel like they are being watched take more risks.”

“But my guys and gals aren’t rampant rhinos,” Tim objected. “They don’t go charging off to do crazy things when the leash is off.”

“Probably not,” I said. “But you can provide a much greater margin of safety for your people and your operation. The four highest-risk operational arenas of business aviation are ground operations, takeoff, approach, and landing. I have seen you and your people performing risky practices in all four.”

“Really?” Tim looked incredulous. “Like what?”

“On the ground operations side, your maintenance techs aren’t using fall protection when they are up off the floor. Your folks are moving the aircraft without at least two wing-walkers carrying whistles or air horns. You and your crews aren’t staying with the aircraft when the APU is running or during fueling. The pre-departure crew briefing is incomplete and the pilot not flying appears to have no assigned monitoring responsibilities. Below 10,000 feet you and your crews are not maintaining a sterile cockpit environment and one crewmember isn’t looking outside for other aircraft. And your people are not using stabilized approach procedures. And all of that is just the low-hanging fruit.”

Tim measured his words carefully. “Lee, I think you’re being nitpicky. Everybody does these things.”



“Certainly a number of folks do,” I agreed. “But let’s go back to what Mr. Hansen said loud and clear. He wants this operation to perform to at least Best Practices. Do you have any doubts about his intent?”

“Not from what I heard this morning,” Tim admitted.

“Do you believe he will back you with the resources and policy support you need to achieve Best Practices?”

“He has always been a man of his word,” Tim said. “He said it and I expect he’ll do it.”

“Then it’s up to you and your team,” I said.

Tim looked a little confused. “I thought he asked you to take us there.”

“No,” I said. “If I did that, the new standards and practices would be mine, not yours. You and I will work together, but I want you to work with your folks. This must be yours.”

“Lee, I appreciate your sensitivity to my position with my people, but I’m not an expert on Best Practices and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Tim said.

“Good, because you can’t achieve Best Practices alone,” I explained. “It will take the involvement of your whole team.”

“So, how do you suggest we get from where we are to where we want to be?”

I smiled. “As the old joke goes, the same way you eat an elephant—one bite at a time. I suggest the following steps:

“Tell your folks about the journey they are about to embark upon and why. Explain your vision for the standards you are going to achieve in whatever terms you choose, like ‘I want us to be the operation others come to benchmark against.’ Make it clear that this is not a program of the month, and that you need their full support. Each individual’s participation is not optional.

“Assign each person the responsibility to research a functional arena. As points to start with, I’d suggest:

“Facilities and ground handling can be headed up by your junior pilot. Let him start out by reviewing the work that the National Air Transportation Association (NATA) has done by viewing their web page at Another source for guidance is your insurance company.

“Scheduling and dispatch can be done by you. You can turn to the NBAA’s Schedulers and Dispatchers group for ideas at

“For flight operations, your senior captain can take a look at the Flight Safety Foundation’s web page at for a great deal of information and a number of useful tools.



“You can bring the group’s ideas together put them into practice within your operation by using the International Standard – Business Aviation Operations (IS-BAO) model established by the International Business Aviation Counsel. You can get more information about this widely accepted program at Achieving IS-BAO Stage 3 registration could easily be the signature goal of your team’s efforts.”

Tim thought for a moment before responding. “Lee, that’s a lot to take in at one time. I’ve made a lot of notes and will look at these web pages. I hope you don’t mind me contacting you and asking lots of questions as we proceed. What other thoughts do you have?”

“Tim, I think you’ll do just fine as long as you set your expectations high enough and give your people the guidance they need in the beginning. You and they have become comfortable with you being in charge. It is a classic compliance model environment. Right now they are all responsible to you. For Best Practices to succeed, they each must become responsible to each other.

“As they become competent in Best Practices processes and procedures you will need to step back from managing their performance and elevate yourself to acting as their leader. Let them become the owners of Best Practices performance. Let them continue to push for improvement and change. That is the essence of the commitment model of management. It will allow your department to achieve the levels of performance Mr. Hansen and you seek”

“Well, Lee, I really appreciate your help in teaching this old dog some new tricks,” Tim said with a nod.

“That’s one of things I love about aviation,” I smiled. “There are always new tricks any dog can learn.”

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