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Who’s the Boss?

Closing the Cabin/Cockpit Communications Chasm

We don’t worry while riding in the back of our aircraft. Our pilots are competent. If they’re safe, we’re safe.” – Executive

“I don’t get it. The boss says he wants a safe operation. Then he asks us to push the envelope. I’m worried about where this is headed.” – Chief pilot

These quotes highlight the all-too-frequent communications gap between the C-suite and the airport. Owners and executives talk “business risk.” Aviation professionals talk “operational risk.” But often they don’t perceive risk in the same way. When socio-political and workplace perspectives are different, that can create unintentional flight operational risks. There are three components to anyone’s view of risk:

  • Industry Risk.
  • Personal Risk.
  • Positional Risk.

Each presents a range of tolerances. Where you are on that continuum has a powerful impact on your communications with your aviation service provider – whether flight department, aircraft management company, or fractional/jet card/charter service.

Industry Risk Tolerance

High Industry Risk Tolerance – Some industries, such as logging, commercial fishing, and motor racing, are high-risk physical environments. Entrepreneurial companies and some private equity partners exist in high-risk financial environments. Because high risks are the norm for executives in these businesses, they strive to get the job done while minimizing losses.

A successful leader in these organizations must have a high tolerance for risk. As a result, they tend to be hyposensitive, if not adversarial, in discussions about aviation services operational risk management.

Low Industry Risk Tolerance – Risk-averse industries, such as power companies and financial institutions, are at the opposite extreme. Continuity of electricity and the monetary system are critical to the public’s best interests – one of the reasons they are highly regulated. Consequently, they are tightly focused on managing risks. Their business processes are robust and hypersensitive to performance variances. An executive with this perspective naturally tends to be a strong aviation services safety leader.

Moderate Industry Risk Tolerance – Most businesses and individuals operate in the middle ground of risk tolerance. If you are here, you probably will experience greater influence from the other factors described below, which will affect your aviation safety leadership and conversations.

Personal Risk Tolerance

High Personal Risk Tolerance – A small portion of the population thrives on taking risks. These thrill seekers skydive, race, and free-climb. They see traditional rules and standards as barriers to their definition of success, and are opportunity-focused. They may view aviation safety Best Practices as a belt-and-suspenders approach to flying: as too restrictive. If this is you, without filters or mandatory go/no-go check points, you may be a risk contributor.

Low Personal Risk Tolerance – Others are risk-averse. They abhor failure and may be paranoid about making mistakes. They rely on rules and regulations for guidance. These behaviors support proper aviation safety processes and procedures. However, if this is you, your critical decision-making may be too slow for the dynamic world of business aviation. Delayed adoption of aviation safety initiatives (e.g. installation of equipment, additional training, etc.) can prolong or amplify risks.

Moderate Personal Tolerance – Most people have a moderate tolerance for risk. They learn from experience, and observe and respond well to information gained within the context of what they understand. If this describes you, education and information greatly enhances effective aviation safety communications with your aviation service provider.

Positional Risk Tolerance

High Positional Risk Tolerance – An enterprise leader or high-net-worth individual has significant positional power. No matter how politely they may frame an observation or opinion, what they say usually goes. If this is you, you have a very low sense of positional risk in deciding. That’s fine, if your decision is well-considered. But, if there is misalignment between you and your aviation service provider in your beliefs about operational safety, you will need to accede to him or her. Good leadership means respecting the professionals you hired.

Low Positional Risk Tolerance – A junior manager has very limited authority. A wrong move could be career limiting. Their decisions are either within their scope of authority or very thoroughly vetted. If a junior manager is charged with managing access to business aircraft in your operation, create a strong dotted-line link with you or another C-Suite executive who can take the lead – and the heat – for critical aviation safety initiatives.

Moderate Positional Risk Tolerance – Most senior managers have learned what they can and cannot control. They know how their organization’s decision system works. If this is you, you tend to play by those rules to create results that properly balance safety requirements with operational flexibility. One caution: Don’t overplay the “safety” trump card, lest your credibility be compromised for crying “wolf.”

The “Secret Sauce”

How you operate via this matrix creates the lens through which you view aviation safety. Understanding your own position is critical to your ability to effectively lead aviation risk management.

When it comes to aircraft operational safety, the most challenging – even dangerous – combination of positions is:

  1. High Industry Risk Tolerance, plus
  2. High Personal Risk Tolerance by top management, plus
  3. Low Positional Risk Tolerance at the aviation services reporting point.

Your risk-mitigating options are:

  • Treat aviation services as independent from the core business. Their needs for conservative, low-risk policies, standards, and practices will be seen more clearly and with less risk-tolerance-induced bias.
  • Position aviation as a Strategic Service. Protect your company’s brand by holding aviation services to a different/higher standard of performance than that of the core enterprise.
  • Establish a formal dotted-line reporting relationship between your aviation services leader and a C-suite executive who can address risks with authority and in a timely manner.
  • Use an outside expert – authorized by senior management and endorsed by the aviation department – to carry the message.

The least challenging combination of positions is:

  1. Low Industry Risk Tolerance, plus
  2. Low Personal Risk Tolerance by top management, plus
  3. High Positional Risk Tolerance at the aviation services reporting point.

Here, aviation safety will reflect your core business and corporate culture. The following check points will be useful to you:

  • Benchmark. Risk-averse organizations and managers welcome the direction of the herd. Stay updated on industry trends and regulatory mandates.
  • Rely on proven business aviation best practices and policies.
  • Conduct periodic internal and external reviews that assess compliance and identify opportunities for continued growth and improvement.

Few pilots involved in accidents deliberately intended to violate safe practices. However, according to our analysis of accident investigation records, an astonishing number took inappropriate risks to better serve their passengers’ perceived travel requirements. These misperceptions often began with miscommunications.

Miscommunications lead to mishaps. As an executive, your role in aviation safety is pivotal. Take the lead on bridging the risk management communications gap. BAA

Pete Agur, Jr. is chairman/founder of The VanAllen Group, a management consulting firm specializing in the business of business aviation. With an MBA and a BS in Aeronautical Sciences, he is an NBAA Certified Aviation Manager.


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