At Flight Safety Foundation, we try to allocate our time to areas where the risk is the greatest, which means that we are spending an increasing amount of our time with smaller operators in high-growth areas around the world. Of course, they have a lot of the challenges you would expect, but a disturbing number of them have a challenge that nobody really wants to talk about. So I guess it is up to me to start the conversation.
The problem is similar to one the industry faced during the 1990s, known as the “cockpit authority gradient.” We carefully acknowledged the fact that this had a cultural component that varied in the different regions of the world. We talked about it because it was a big deal and had to be dealt with. Twenty-plus years later, the message has been heard, and to a great extent, that problem is being seriously addressed.
The new and unspoken problem is similar — let’s call it the “company authority gradient” — and it also has a bit of a cultural component. Here is what it looks like in the real world: A small operator staffed with good people works hard to put the right safety systems in place. But that airline or flight department is run by a new generation of owner, who really has no insight into, or respect for, the integrity of the operation. The airline or corporate jet is just another possession. The owner routinely jumps into the middle of the operation, overrides the operations director, ignores standard operating procedures and regulations, and orders something to happen. To be clear, we are talking about owners who order pilots to overload aircraft, fly with expired licenses, ignore duty-time limits and so on. If a pilot or operations officer disagrees, he or she is fired on the spot and replaced. I hear this story often in Asia, Africa, the Commonwealth of Independent States and elsewhere. It happens every day, and it is getting people killed.
Clearly, this is a tough problem. Manufacturers have a great track record for identifying risk and taking corrective action, but in this case, the risk is the person who signs the checks and buys the airplanes, so it is not realistic to expect manufacturers to use a heavy hand. It would be reasonable to expect the regulator to limit this sort of behavior, but to be honest, these sorts of owners also tend to have massive political influence, and so regulators have plenty of incentive to pursue other priorities. In big airlines, there are corporate governance structures that would limit such transgressions, but those don’t apply in some parts of the world or in small, privately held operations.
That leaves us in a pretty tough place. It took decades to convince some captains that they did not have to be all-powerful to be effective, and that seeking advice was not the same as losing face. Now we are faced with the challenge of communicating this same sort of message to some powerful people who don’t want advice. Somehow we have to get the message through that the integrity of the operation is a more precious asset than the pretty airplanes that sit on the ramp. This isn’t an easy conversation, but it is a conversation that can no longer wait.