Aircraft Accidents and Mismanagement, Part Two

“A bad manager can take a good staff and destroy it, causing the best employees to flee and the remainder to lose all motivation.”  Brigette Hyacinth, MBA Caribbean Organisation.  Ms. Hyacinth is a motivational speaker and educator.  There is iron in her words, especially for the employee who can’t leave.  There is nothing worse than working in a hostile or adversarial workplace, particularly one that is inescapable.  How does this type of work environment affect aviation safety?

Case One: Thirty years ago, I was a supervisor for an airline.  A new Director took over my line station, immediately rearranging the station’s work schedules to ‘streamline’ the workplace to the flight schedule; in reality, an experiment.  On paper, the new schedule made some sense, shuffling manpower around to address a minor future problem.  However, the old schedule worked just fine; the manpower met the needs of the flight schedule because, except for a few seasonal ad hoc flights supported by overtime, all the aircraft were worked.  Bottom line is, the Director decided to fix something that wasn’t broken.

Overnight, the workplace turned into a hostile environment: crew-to-crew tensions elevated; supervisor-to-mechanic relations deteriorated.  Meanwhile, the Director never showed his face, choosing to remain in his office to ‘let the dust settle on its own’; no meetings, no one-on-one chats, just silence.  This did nothing for workplace morale.

It wasn’t that the workforce was so opposed to a new schedule; despite the drastic changes, job actions were not the problem.  Instead, it was in the delivery: the quality of life needs of eighty-five mechanics were casually dismissed by the new Director.  Those who could transfer out, did; those with families were locked in or found other equally paying jobs in the area.  After several months, the more talented and experienced were reacting, taking the better shifts.  On-time reliability decreased with the reduction of experienced mechanics on more demanding shifts.  Other airports serviced by this station were beginning to be affected by the delays.

The workplace environment, increasingly hostile, ultimately resulted in Human Factor issues, e.g. sleep disruptions – workers were now having to drive long distances in congested rush hour traffic; family and financial tensions increased – spouses were expected to compensate for the mechanics’ new hours that intruded on every family responsibility, from Childcare to school sports; and the feeling of being trapped in a job with no escape.  These human factor issues played havoc with safety, not because of resentment, but from exhaustion, distracted attention, family problems, etc.

The Director was removed after one year; during that time, upper management threw all support behind him, that is, until reality set in and they realized the unnecessary schedule changes were costly and counterproductive.  However, the damage was done.  One bad manager destroyed a cohesive staff of professionals; productivity took forever to return, reliability suffered, the workplace environment and trust of management were irreparable, all because one bad manager wanted to prove his own worth.

Years later, when I worked aircraft accidents, my friend Evan, a Human Performance specialist, weaved human factors questions into each technician interview we conducted.  Why?  Because technicians, pilots and air traffic controllers are human.  We react – often intensely – to radical changes in, e.g. sleep patterns, temperature, financial difficulties, family influences, lighting, etc.  Even though conditions change, life goes on, whether we can handle it or not; it does not stop to ease life’s difficulties in.  This phenomenon was exemplified by the First Officer in the Colgan Air 3407 accident in Buffalo, February 2009.

Case Two: Air Midwest 5481 is a tragedy I refer to often, perhaps for the many lessons we can glean from that particular accident.  The 2003 Charlotte disaster would never have happened, but for the complete breakdown in management.  The failure at Air Midwest went from the top ranks to a frontline workforce of complete strangers with no loyalty to the airline.  However, the main difference between the breakdown at my former employer and Air Midwest was in the training; management allowed Air Midwest’s maintenance training to suffer to the point of irrelevance.

The level of inexperience at Air Midwest, especially at its Huntington, WV, facility, was stark; correct maintenance practices were ignored or misused.  The quality of technician training was absent; the workforce’s dedication was indifferent, while management’s attention was never on the workforce or the safety of work accomplished.  The Air Midwest supervisor worked Day shift and the contract workforce worked midnights; this meant the contractors employed to work the Air Midwest aircraft were unsupervised – by Air Midwest.  No one was assuring the airline’s best interests and safety were looked at.  The contractors, left to their own devices, never dedicated themselves to proper training.

For all the accidents I’ve investigated or certificate holders I’ve inspected, training is the common thread of abuse.  Padded training hours, inexperienced instructors, ‘pencil-whipping’ and over-crediting of hours are common ways any organization hides their employees’ lack of qualification.  Air Midwest had all these and more, including a large turnover of technicians.

Air Midwest gave no structure for the contract maintenance people to follow; management was unconcerned, so the technicians felt no loyalty to stay.  The revolving door of technicians made completing the necessary training and cultivating experience on the aircraft, impossible.  Management was untouchable, inaccessible and apathetic.  Furthermore, management was irresponsible.

In both cases, similar results occurred, e.g. a large turnover of employees.  In Case Two, with only eight mechanics per shift, a consistent turnover of employees is glaring in this situation.  All eight had cycled out over a period of several weeks, and then the replacements cycled out.  Upper management didn’t disregard the problems, they just didn’t care.

In Case One, the effects were less obvious, except over time.  The increasing percentage of people transferring out or ‘jumping ship’ was spread out over months; senior, more qualified mechanics moved around internally, leaving the less experienced to the shifts that demanded experience.  The signs were ignored by upper management, even justified as the consequences of necessary change or dismissed as disgruntled mechanics resistant to change.

With improper Training, the trail is easy to prove; training records are tangible, one can see the abuses in documented training hours.  Human Factors issues are not so easily identifiable; the negative effects are felt over a longer period of time, sometimes over several seasons, e.g. increases in driving times the workers experienced could be discounted as an increase in Christmas travelers or beach goers.  These issues are lost in analysis.

The common factor in both cases was Management, or the absence of good management.  It’s important to note, these are not isolated incidents, but examples of greater problems.  Front line and upper managers are supposed to be filters between the bean-counters and the workforce; they’re not meant to become bean-counters themselves.  Upper management should become increasingly concerned, not so much with what happens outside the company, but what effect their decisions have on the inside of the company.  Upper management should rely on the analysis of Quality Control and not on lower management’s often sycophantic opinion.

Today’s managers are in a rapidly changing environment, each trying to make their niche, claw their way to the top, oftentimes at the expense of the group they’re managing; this fact is not debatable.  But the workers are what’s important: consumers don’t purchase goods and services that managers make possible, they purchase these items from what the workforce provides, assuming there is a workforce to provide.

And safety isn’t something that can be managed, it has to be committed to by each employee.  To do so, each employee must receive the training and tools they need to be safe, work safe and think safe.  To do that, managers have to get back to supporting their workforce, not destroying it.

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