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The Board plays an integral part in aviation safety
The safety record of jet-powered business aircraft flown by a two-person salaried crew is outstanding—on a par with the most experienced scheduled Airlines- observes Jack Olcott.
Recently the Smithsonian Channel has been airing a weekly series entitled Terror in the Skies- which features hair-raising coverage of aircraft accidents and aeronautical close calls. The program’s creative personnel have amassed dramatic clips from across the globe of aircraft dealing with challenging situations- such as extreme crosswinds at airports where terrain features limit conventional approaches. A segment on fatigue featured video of a pilot asleep at the controls- and cases were described where the pilot in command awoke to find the co-pilot also asleep- the aircraft continuing on course thanks to its autopilot. Footage of tragic accidents also is aired.
Such situations may generate sensational TV- but they are anomalies in an operational environment where aviation’s culture of safety is reflected by an outstanding safety record. Terror in the Skies is an unfortunate title for a series on commercial and private aviation.
The series does provoke a concept- however- that should be considered by those responsible for oversight of a company’s most important assets—its employees.
Public Transport —Public Trust
Travelers who fly on US air carriers or foreign Airlines licensed to conduct activities in US airspace benefit from the professionalism of the Federal Aviation Administration and the commitment of pilots- mechanics and flight attendants who earn their living in commercial aviation. Providers of on-demand (i.e.- chartered) air transportation are also subject to federal certification.
Our government as well as non-US governments establish minimum qualifications for personnel who fly- with the highest standards specified for aviation professionals responsible for dealing with passengers who purchase air transportation. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) provides review and harmonization of safety regulations globally. For the most part- the entire aviation community strives to exceed standards in daily operations. Passengers purchasing Airline tickets or chartering a flight can be assured that the system is safe.
The system is also impersonal. A passenger on any form of public transportation places his or her wellbeing in the hands of a stranger. Yes- the risk of a mishap is very low. But the fact remains—someone unknown to your company is in control.
Flight Departments —Company Control
It is not so with a company-owned aircraft. Everything that is controllable lies within the purview of the company that chooses to have its own flight department. Each step within the process of providing air transportation for company personnel is implemented by the flight department. Pilots are hired- trained- retained or fired according to the company’s operating manual. Maintenance personnel are similarly selected to fulfil the highly important role of assuring that aircraft are airworthy.
Individual and team performance is easily observed- measured- evaluated and corrected when intervention is needed. Rarely is a flight department so large that the Director of Aviation is unable to recognize each member of staff solely by his or her name. Peer review is the norm- and communications between aviation personnel is easily nurtured when the department is in the hands of a knowledgeable manager.
Flight safety is a function of how successfully the flight and maintenance personnel perform their tasks. Mechanical malfunction is unlikely when maintenance and inspection protocols dictated by the FAA and the companies that manufacture airframes- engines and avionics equipment are followed. Systems are designed so that no single failure results in a potential tragedy. Furthermore- flight crews are trained to deal with the few mechanical failures that might occur.
In the highly skilled world of the scheduled Airlines- pilot error is deemed the leading cause of accidents and mishaps in slightly more than 50 percent of all crashes. In the field on General Aviation- of which Business Aviation is a specialized subset- about 75 percent of accidents are attributed to pilot error (the high percentage due mainly to the number of relatively inexperienced private pilots who are involved in GA accidents). Thus safety is correlated with the knowledge and skill of those who provide air transportation. The best safety system is a well trained staff of aviation professionals- dedicated to a culture of safety and managed by a capable leader.
Final responsibility for travel safety of company employees rests with the Board of Directors. Boards have the authority to establish transportation policy. By authorizing formation of the company’s flight department and overseeing the policies that shape that department’s service to the company- Boards have the opportunity to exercise maximum control over air travel safety for employees.
No other form of air transportation provides a higher degree of control. Such authority should not be misused. Nor should a Board’s fiduciary responsibility be overlooked.