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Passenger-Flight Crew Relations

Most Business Aviation professionals and their passengers are exactly that - ‘professional’. But when lapses happen- the impact can affect safety- security and costs- cautions Pete Agur.

Pete Agur   |   1st November 2013
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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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A potential Minefield
Most Business Aviation professionals and their passengers are exactly that - ‘professional’. But when lapses happen- the impact can affect safety- security and costs- cautions Pete Agur.

The relationship between flight crewmembers and passengers can have interesting dynamics. Many pilots consider themselves special. We refer to it as the “Sky-god” syndrome. Contributing to this strong sense of self is the tendency for key passengers to put pilots on pedestals. Why? It is natural for us to want to believe the person we trust with our wellbeing is “the best”.

Most of us feel that way about our doctors. Yet- it is impossible for all of us to have the very best doctors and pilots. This dynamic is why a number of companies have experienced some unfortunate Days of Our Lives distractions caused by well-intended corporate policies or misguided passenger-crew relations.

Boards Beware
More than one of our clients has had corporate “diversity in the workplace” efforts that created substantially higher Business Aviation operational risks. To illustrate my point- look at the following hypothetical scenario: Your company has a core value of diversity- backed by metrics (headcount expectations). It is a righteous goal.

Your HR department is keeper of the torch and has a great deal of authority- ranging from creating candidate slates to assuring personnel conformity. During a recent round of hiring- HR makes it clear the aviation department should hire a minority pilot. HR creates a pool of three candidates- all of whom have less experience than normally required.

The interview process goes well. A young Latin female is the frontrunner. She demonstrates exceptional social and communications skills. Even though her flying experience and cockpit skills are substandard- the department manager is coached to “hire her for her attitude and train her for performance”.

Unfortunately- over a two-year period she does not respond well to training. Her flying skills remain substandard and her crew coordination- situational awareness and decision-making skills in the cockpit remain unacceptable (i.e.- “risk inducing”). She understands her employment is in jeopardy. Her response to technical coaching does not focus on improving. Instead- she launches a campaign to deliberately extend her social network into the back of the aircraft. She aggressively charms many of the key passengers before- during and after their flights- to the point of neglecting her crew responsibilities.

Corporate Challenges
Unwinding high risk fur-balls are tedious and expensive processes that typically require lots of lawyers- time and money. The lesson to be learned is that noble intentions should not override critical performance standards- lest heightened risks to passengers and increasing costs to the corporation be incurred.

Looking at a different hypothetical scenario- a very large company- with great success in its core business- inexplicably experiences decades of instability at the helm of its Business Aviation department. No aviation manager lasts more than two years. From the outside it looks like a series of unfortunate circumstances. Each departing manager quietly fades into the sunset. Then the company hires a new man—let’s call him ‘Fred’ for the sake of this illustration.

Fred has exceptional leadership and management experience. He begins to understand the challenges he faces when he discovers that top executives know too much about the inner workings of his department. Unlike his predecessors- who tried to either ignore the issue or address it internally- Fred reaches out to the executive to whom he reports- and beyond. It takes a few exchanges over coffee for him to uncover the source of the problem.

Inappropriate conversations are occurring between pilots and passengers. A group of his captains act like anarchists. They know that when they subvert their department manager’s authority- they can operate as they please- unsupervised.

By explaining the dynamics and unwanted impact of bumptious backchannel behaviors- Fred is able to invoke top executive intervention with the senior passengers. The cycle created by a small group of errant pilots- and unwittingly exacerbated by well-intended passengers- is broken. Inappropriate communications can result in the unnecessary turnover of managers- with an accumulated cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All Too Realistic
Both of these cases may seem far-fetched- yet they are not. In fact- they are not even the most egregious examples I could have conceived. I will save those for after I retire and all parties- innocent or otherwise- are deceased. I guess that means my lips are sealed- forever.

In the meantime- I urge you- as a Board Member- to provide specific guidance:

• Well-intended company policies must be written and implemented in a manner that assures they are not misunderstood or misused.

• Don’t allow critical standards designed to assure the mitigation of very real operational risks to be overridden by the subordinate objective of social responsibility.

• I also recommend that you remind your top executives to maintain only the most professional of communications and relationships with crewmembers.

• In kind- you should expect the Business Aviation manager to direct the same from flight crews.

The goal is to prevent inappropriate passenger–flight crew communications because they are likely to lead to significantly increased operational risks- unintended costs of distracting proportions- and potential damage to the brand.


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