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“Culture” is quite the popular buzzword in recent years, as leaders in countless industries begin to realize the significant role that human psychology, behavior, and even emotions play in our work lives.  This notion of culture among the workplace specifically refers to the shared values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations that exist in an organization.  Savvy leaders know that every organization has a culture whether you have those collective qualities framed on the wall or not.  If leaders do not actively direct the culture to possess desirable characteristics like honesty, efficiency, and quality, for instance, a default culture will fill the void.  Without purposeful direction, an organization may inadvertently drift into a culture that possesses “qualities” like deceitfulness, excess, and sloppiness instead.

There is undoubtedly a culture that surrounds aviation safety in our industry.  The questions we should consider are: does the aviation industry have the safety culture we want?  What does our safety culture truly espouse?  Who directs it?  Are industry leaders proactively directing the safety culture, or are we drifting into a default culture?

A progress mindset is an essential component of a vibrant safety culture; there is always room for improvement.  That being said, the answer to the first question should always be “no.”  That has no bearing on the current state of the safety culture.  Striving to be better should be an inherent quality.  Nonetheless, a gap exists between our current safety culture and an ideal safety culture. 

Variation in the safety culture exists between inside the aviation industry for myriad reasons. There are differences in the safety culture between airline and corporate, aerial application and cargo, charter and flight instructing.  Also, a parent company’s culture, positive or negative, may have more impact on one flight department than another.  The values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations of the leaders in individual flight departments may also dramatically affect their group as a whole.  Among these variations, we witness many stellar examples. There are truly healthy safety cultures that value safety above all else.  Neither budgets, passengers’ needs, nor even efficiency are prioritized higher than safety.  People are able to openly voice concerns without fear of recrimination or retaliation.  Everyone, regardless of rank or status, is equally empowered to be responsible for safety and is given a voice in safety system development and implementation.  On the other hand, we also witness flight departments that exhibit only surface-level compliance.  The paperwork may be ship-shape, and they may even possess several safety certifications and commendations.  They lack organizational integrity, however.  Their actions don’t match the words in their safety manuals.  This type of safety culture is just a well-polished veneer, a fancy but flimsy façade that doesn’t prevent aircraft from hitting the ground.  Unfortunately, this type of safety culture is far too prevalent.  Why do safety cultures like this exist?  The answer to that question is tied to the biggest driver of safety culture in aviation: the FAA.

First, it should be said unequivocally that the FAA has been enormously effective in reducing the number of fatal accidents, particularly among commercial and corporate aircraft, over the last fifty years.  There are several factors that contribute to this decrease:  both better technology and better understanding of many topics including weather, aerodynamics, and human factors.  The FAA, however, has been responsible for incorporating this gleaned knowledge and these technological advances into the regulations we must follow when we strap ourselves into the cockpit.  They have been successful protecting the flying public, and that should be recognized.  However, careful consideration about the implementation of these rules may shed light onto the often “skin-deep” safety culture that exists across much of the industry.

A healthy fear of accidents, not punishment, should drive aviation safety culture.

When considering human behavior, one has to look at incentives and motivation.  The heavy-handedness of the FAA’s punitive actions over decades past has motivated the pilot group in a way perhaps other than intended.  To be sure, the goal of the FAA’s intended safety culture, and that for every group’s safety culture, should be to eliminate incidents and accidents.  However, when a pilot’s certificate, job, and subsequently career is put into jeopardy due to a pilot deviation, not an incident or accident, his or her motivation slightly changes.  The worry of diapers, tuition, and food on the table quickly trumps an aircraft accident as the motivating factor for a professional pilot.  While the result may look similar, trying to avoid an accident and trying to avoid punishment are subtly different motivators.  Clear evidence of mistrust exists in the FAA’s inability to develop a true safety partnership with the pilot group.  While the FAA has many safety programs, initiatives, and systems, most pilots try to “keep their head down,” minimize mistakes, and avoid the FAA at all costs.  While I do not believe this is the best way to minimize accidents, I understand that this is a predictable, behavioral response to an incentive, or in this case, a disincentive.  People don’t want to cooperate with an organization who threatens their livelihood and ability to fly for honest mistakes in a complex operating environment.

Before it seems that I am unfairly criticizing the FAA, I applaud the FAA for implementing the “Just Culture” Compliance Philosophy in 2015.  As the largest driver of safety culture in the aviation industry, the FAA is poised to possibly make the largest positive impact on safety culture in recent history.  I say “possibly” because a culture shift is more than a new program or initiative.  A cultural shift requires total immersion and implementation throughout the entire organization.  Rather than using punishment as a motivating tool to “do better,” the FAA has wisely adopted a philosophy that emphasizes non-punitive cooperation and training for minor infractions.  In the FAA’s words, “Through voluntary safety efforts such as Commercial Aviation Safety Team (CAST), General Aviation Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC), Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), and Air Traffic Safety Action Program (ATSAP), just to name a few, we’ve seen the benefits of a non-blaming, problem-solving, collaborative approach to solving safety problems.”  Of course, culture is slow to change.  Culture cannot be mandated; again, it takes time for values, assumptions, beliefs, and expectations to change.  For that reason, many people have not even heard about this attempted culture shift, or they have heard only anecdotal stories about the “kinder, gentler FAA.”  We have arrived in our current safety culture after decades of behavioral reinforcement.  It will take years of sustained collaboration on the part of the FAA, for the pilots to let their guard down even regarding minor mistakes.  The FAA makes clear, however, they reserve punitive action for incidents, accidents, as well as intentional rule-breaking.  After all, this approach has been largely successful for driving down accidents over decades.  Hopefully, a combination approach of “Just Culture” compliance when possible, and violation only when absolutely necessary will drive down accidents to zero.  Only time will tell.  And only time will tell if the new culture shift is adopted by airlines, flight departments, and individual pilots, industry-wide.  Perhaps in 5, 10, or 20 years the healthy fear of an aircraft accident will finally outweigh the fear of getting in trouble.