Lately I’ve heard a fear expressed increasingly often that what we say about aviation safety issues in public, or in private meetings or even in response to surveys trying to map behavior patterns, has the potential to threaten the industry with legislative or regulatory trouble if the statements get twisted by journalists or, are used in a vicious Internet post that goes viral.
I recognize that a lot of what we discuss is so esoteric, so far removed from the language and frame of reference of most people, that it easily can be misunderstood, sometimes to the point of creating short-term damage. That is one reason we don’t release material from our working meetings until issues have been hammered out and vetted. The other reason is that most journalists, even aviation specialists, cannot devote the time needed to wade through all of the discussions, the back-and-forth debates and investigations that eventually arrive at a valuable conclusion.
Journalists need to budget their time carefully. Best case scenario for most is to find information like red meat on the table, ready to slice up and serve. Digging through hours of highly technical discussions in the hope of finding a nugget to report, and maybe misconstrue, typically is not the reality of their situations.
Further, there’s already a lot of red meat out there in the public record — in hearings and discussions by numerous legislative, regulatory and safety investigation bodies — that can provide a forum for bomb throwers. These produce content far more damning than anything we might say in any reasonable discussion of pressing industry issues.
A classic and continuing case of misunderstood and/or misrepresented reporting is the flogging being given the adoption of safety management systems, with repeated charges that regulators have turned over their oversight responsibilities to the people they are supposed to be monitoring. Connected with that theme is the claim that “just” culture is nothing more than an excuse to avoid the consequences of failing to comply with the rules.
For the sake of this discussion, it is fairly accurate to say there are two types of journalists who might write a story about aviation safety, or the lack thereof. The first and by far largest, group consists of those who don’t know the subject very well and often miss the salient points. This group can produce the occasional headline based on a partially understood issue that will raise a few hackles, but rarely do they create the kind of lasting turmoil we’ve seen in the past couple of years by, say, the aftermath of the Colgan Air Bombardier Q400 crash near Buffalo, New York, U.S.
Then there is the group who know what they are talking about, mostly aviation industry trade journalists but also a few highly focused general news media folks. For the most part, when the industry is embarrassed by stories from this group, the industry probably deserves to be embarrassed. Face it, while the system is nearly perfect, gaps remain, and gaps need to be filled. If we’re called out on these gaps, shame on us.
So don’t waste a lot of sleep over information that might leak out of our safety meetings and be picked up for public discussion. It is unlikely that anything we say or do will be nearly as damaging as what’s already out there, or will be the instant the next airplane hits the ground hard.