Aircraft Accidents and Communication

I remember in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda takes Luke to task for not raising his ship out of the bog; Luke is intimidated by the ship’s size, despite all Yoda’s Force teachings.  So, in a film ‘moment’, Yoda demonstrates what it is to believe in one’s abilities; he raises the ship and floats it to dry land.  Luke is stunned; when he says he doesn’t believe what the little Jedi Master had done, Yoda simply replies, “That … is why you fail.”

It appears that I’m upsetting some people with my articles.  I never apologize for hurt feelings; the point of these articles is not to criticize individuals, but to make aviation people and the flying public aware of aviation safety issues … period.  If someone sees themselves doing something unsafe in what I write, then perhaps there should be more inner contemplation and a lot less sleeve wiping.  I’m playing the messenger and the message is simple:

THINK SAFE, BE SAFE … period.

I’ve had the honor of knowing people who have made management an art form; unfortunately, they are few and far between.  I, myself, was mediocre as a manager – not awful, but not great.  I was a better team leader working NTSB or FAA investigations.  While these positions never carried the authority necessary to supervise, a true leader doesn’t need to wave authority or abuse it.  Instead he should know how to guide.

A true leader directs the mission; he is not led around or distracted.  A leader sets the pace; he’s the drummer to which his reports march to.  He knows what and when to delegate; never shunning the weight of responsibility.  Loyalty is acquired by demonstrating loyalty.  He is willing to take a bullet for the team while holding each of his people accountable for their actions: publicly praising or privately reproaching.

But most importantly, he communicates, face-to-face, when possible; he leaves no opening to interpretation.  And when the plan doesn’t work, he’s not above listening to his team while reserving the charge of the final decision for himself.

Both in government and industry, management secures itself by its size, by the fortress it builds.  When issues pile up, it is easier to add layers of management, rather than to confront the situation and solve it.  This creates a top-heavy bureaucracy that increases the distance between Management and ‘the floor’, or Labor.  When Management fills a supervisor slot, the priority is to fill the position with a warm body, not necessarily an experienced individual.  Further turmoil is produced as the new supervisor wastes months establishing his failed leadership.  The consequence is a disgruntled work crew who feels isolated and unheard.  Meanwhile, Upper Management remains ignorant, often by choice, sitting atop the fortress.

In the aviation world, this is often leads to unionization.  As a union is brought in – for good or bad – another layer is added; communication breaks down even further; reconciliation between Management and Labor is no longer available.  This all sounds so dramatic; “Management is the bad guy, causing breakdowns in a company, for sure,” yet Labor has its own stake in the turmoil.

And this is where I usually came in.  The aircraft has crashed; the victims mourned and buried; the fingers are pointing; and the media is screaming for blood.  What I immediately saw upon entering an accident investigation was the breakdown in Management/Labor relations.  What was so very obvious: that communications broke down long before; it was almost non-existent.

Several years ago, I inspected an airline; the airline’s Directors lived and worked in one state; the mechanics, the pilots and the airliners were at an airport in another state 800 miles away.  The Director of Maintenance never made it to where the aircraft were; he never saw the aircraft, his reporting managers or the maintenance performed.  Worse: his disconnection was not limited to geographical distance – that’s workable.  But there was no communication, ever.

This wasn’t a matter of the airline being too big; a worldwide air carrier whose Director can’t be in all places as his employees.  Instead, it was a matter of complacency; time between status meetings with his reporting managers were measured in months, not days or weeks; he never met or tracked any of the mechanics the airline hired.  What became apparent was this communication breakdown was a recipe for disaster.

And that disaster usually comes in the form of an accident.  Air Midwest 5481, Colgan 9446 and ValuJet 592 are all accidents that can be traced back to poor internal communications, not only between Management and Labor within the airline, but to the contractors working to maintain that airline’s fleet.  From what maintenance manual procedures to follow to how to ship hazardous materials, the communication breakdown is the foundation of an airline’s problems.  The manufacturing industry can engineer an airliner that operates practically flawlessly; it cannot fix the ills of the airline it sells it to.

As explained to me, management is usually divided into two levels: Upper and Lower Management.  Upper Management is made up of Presidents, Vice-Presidents and Chief Executive Officers.  Their purpose is to look ahead: to determine where the market is going, where to invest future strategies and to evaluate the company’s potential; their job is future growth and opportunities.

Lower Management, e.g. Directors, Managers and Supervisors are trusted with the company’s resources; they’re responsible for making Upper Management’s long and short-term plans come to fruition.  When these plans are not communicated, e.g. budget cuts, station closings, pay raises, work contracted out; issues that may be trivial to Upper Management, become the foundation for disgruntled Labor employees.  It may take months for the complaints to bubble up to the Upper Management level, but by then the damage is done.  Work stoppages, strikes, poor customer service and heavy employee turnovers result in the plans being put off, the growth being crippled and customers opting for the competition.

The worst casualty of an air carrier’s financial downturn is Training, because it is the easiest thing to cut.  Training and Safety run concurrently; as Training decreases, so does Safety.  And there the air carrier sits, back in the Safety hole.  It is a vicious circle; one can see it play out in history, like the sine waves of the Economy.  And like those hills and valleys of the Economy, they usually end up repeating themselves.  They end up as a disaster.

The only thing that I would say to the air carrier, after seeing how history repeated itself, is, “That … is why you fail.”

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