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Business Aviation & The Boardroom - Leadership & Safety

Board oversight is paramount. Who has the greatest impact on the safety of your aviation services- asks management expert Pete Agur? The answer may surprise you.

Pete Agur   |   1st September 2011
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Pete Agur Pete Agur

Peter Agur Jr. is Chairman and Founder of VanAllen - a business aviation consultancy firm with...
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The Impact Of Leadership On Safety
Board oversight is paramount. Who has the greatest impact on the safety of your aviation services- asks management expert Pete Agur? The answer may surprise you.

Safety of your company’s aviation operations is influenced by the decisions and actions of several leaders. Within the following group- though- who has the most effect on safety and how should Board policy be shaped to protect the firm’s most valuable assets—its personnel?

A. The CEO or owner (ultimate authority);
B. The executive to whom aviation reports (direct administrative authority);
C. The aviation department leader (direct managerial authority);
D. The trip captain (direct operational authority)?

To help answer the question and to gain clear insight into the roles and the influences each key player has on safety- I recently conducted a study. The findings of that study were presented at the Flight Safety Foundation’s Corporate Aviation Safety Seminar. The results were undeniable. Of the four- one role has a much higher direct impact on your safety than any other.

The study included 58 selected case analyses- including nine instances that were looked at “before and after”. Among the study’s subjects- the average number of aircraft per operator was 2.7 and the average aircraft value was $17 million. The vast majority (84%) of the subjects were major companies. Their average annual revenues were nearly $15 billion. The remaining cases were high net worth families whose personal fortunes averaged about $8 billion each. In other words- budget constraints and other significant resources were not a factor.

I interviewed each of the four key safety leaders within each of the study’s organizations. My interviews and observations were designed to determine continuity- or gap between “mouth and movement-” when it came to aviation safety: what levels of safety leaders said they wanted versus what they actually did. Additionally- I assessed the occurrences of safety events among the study group. The safety “events” included:

• Aircraft accidents (as defined by the NTSB)-
• Aircraft incidents (an event causing $100-000 or more aircraft damage)-
• Violations of FAA regulatory or company policy- or
• Turnover of safety-related aviation department personnel.

The standards of safety we used in the study are:

• Best Practices – assuring outcomes through an effective balance of resources- processes and procedures.
• Standard Practices – preventing failure by meeting the basic standards set forth by FAA- OSHA- the original equipment manufacturer- etc.
• Substandard Practices – assuming some risks of failure.
• Unacceptable Practices – purposely taking unnecessary and inappropriate risks that can lead to catastrophic failure.

The vast majority of CEOs and owners declare they want ‘Best Practices’ or better aviation safety. But- what these executives say and what they either do- or allow to be done can be very different. That dissonance- or lack of it- was a key part of the study’s metrics. I compiled- calculated and analyzed the results- and then presented the paper. It is available upon request. Its findings are compelling.

The most telling analysis in the study was of nine “before and after” cases. In eight of the nine cases the CEO/owner and the executive to whom aviation reported remained the same before and after the “event.” In all cases- however- the manager of aviation changed. In every case the actual performance of safety improved from “Standard Practices” (with a 67% safety event rate) to “Best Practices” (with an 11% event rate).

Why where changes made to move from Standard Practices to Best Practices- the highest level of policy direction? Why were changes made at the level of Aviation Department leader?

The deposed aviation managers were overly service-focused. Those managers allowed or directed their departments to achieve higher levels of customer service at the cost of accepting higher risks. Those risks included extending crew duty days beyond policy limits and landing on runways with inadequate length.

Once an operational practice of “service first” becomes the implied norm- safety becomes a situational goal rather than an operational standard. That culture actually led to some crewmembers quitting to find safer departments for whom to fly.

Higher risks were not necessarily condoned by top management. But- because most executives are not aviation experts- they tend to trust their aviation managers. In each case something happened to cause the executives to reassess the foundation of that trust. The verification of misplaced trust was the reason for the departure of each of the nine aviation managers.

In analyzing the dramatic improvements created by the “after” group- the new aviation managers had accomplished two things: They had 1) reaffirmed the expectations of the executives and held them to those expectations- and 2) realigned their operational staff’s behaviors to “safety first”.

The study had a very clear finding: The key player with the greatest direct impact on the safety of your aviation services is the aviation manager. If you have an internal aviation department- that is your department manager. If you have an outsourced or managed department- that is the manager to whom your lead captain reports. It is the executive’s responsibility to trust- but verify- the aviation manager’s performance.

Do you have any questions or opinions on the above topic? Get it answered/published in World Aircraft Sales Magazine. Email feedback to: Jack@avbuyer.com


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