Small Operator Safety

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Jan. 20, 2020

Pilots shouldn’t dread delayed or cancelled trips, but should be ready to offer alternatives.

Breaking the news that their flight plans have changed, been delayed or cancelled is among the more difficult conversations a business aircraft pilot can have with passengers. And while aviation professionals are familiar with issues such as weather, mechanical challenges or crew duty-time requirements that often lead to altered travel plans, even experienced pros may still be reluctant to say “no” when such circumstances prevent the safe and legal completion of a planned flight.

However, such conversations need not be awkward or confrontational if pilots are able to explain the reasons behind the change and have alternative plans at the ready.

“If we see a trip request that falls outside of our established parameters, such as for weather, we do our best to be proactive and develop a reasonable alternative,” said Eric Canup, director of flight operations for Live Oak Bank. “Generally, if you’ve found an alternative solution as close as possible to the original request, it eases the issue.”

That doesn’t mean passengers – which may include the aircraft’s owner, company executives or their family members – will readily agree with or understand such changes to their plans.

“Why we shouldn’t land on an icy runway is an easy concept to grasp, but convincing executives that pilots simply can’t be on duty for 20 hours can be a harder sell,” Canup admitted. “Even with an inherent understanding, there still may be a dis-connect; after all, if executives work such long days, why can’t pilots? The answer, of course, is that lives are on the line in the airplane.

“I tend to compare such situations to the bank’s own rules and policies about to whom they’ll lend money,” continued Canup. “We approach the task of delivering them to their destination in much the same way, and while saying ‘no’ may be a pain point today, in the long run they’ll thank us.”


While such conversations may be somewhat easier when between an individual owner and a pilot, it’s important to develop a similar understanding at larger companies between the C-suite and the flight department.

“We have a process that has been developed and accepted by our board of directors that clearly and unequivocally states that pilots are the final authority,” said Canup. “The CEO has signed off on it as well: when on the plane, the go/no-go decision rests with the flight crew alone.”

“Having the CEO’s support is huge,” said Mike Whannell, chief pilot for Jack Henry & Associates. “All our aircraft have a policy statement onboard from the CEO that he supports the decisions made by the flight crew, even if they run contrary to what passengers may want. The pilots are in charge.

“That said, crew members are always told to come with solutions, not problems,” continued Whannell. “‘This may not be the way you wanted the flight to proceed, but here’s why it can’t, and here are two new options I can ensure are safe.’”

In some cases, an owner or executive may try to influence the pilot’s decision-making, particularly when new to the job.

“Clients may want to see what they can get away with on your first trip, or how willing you may be to bend the rules,” said Brad Lindow, a Citation CJ3 and Phenom 300 captain for a Part 91 flight department and a member of NBAA’s Small Flight Department Subcommittee. “It’s important to hold firm to your convictions, but also don’t stamp your feet. In the end, they’ll respect you and trust you more because you did stick to your guns.”

However, such situations may also lead to ten-sions between passengers and crew members.

“One of the earliest mistakes I made was taking offense when my judgment was called into question,” Canup admitted. “It’s particularly important that younger or less experienced pilots take a pause and try to see things from the passenger’s perspective. Explain your decision politely and in plain language and remind them they’ve charged you with providing them with safe transportation above all else.”

Avoiding quick or rushed decisions while under pressure from passengers is another important rule of thumb for pilots.

“Things sometimes change at the last minute,” Canup said, “and that puts the flight crew ‘under the gun.’ However, quick answers in aviation often aren’t vetted thoroughly and can lead to more issues. Our pilots are advised to respectfully ask passengers to give them a few minutes to consider the ramifications.”

“A lot of this comes down to the company culture, and it’s imperative to establish this from the start,” said Whannell. “You must establish early on that saying ‘no’ is not only accepted but understood – and that’s particularly difficult for smaller flight departments, where retention can be difficult, or you may have an owner who’s used to having things done a certain way.”

“It’s fair to say that trust is developed easier when it’s one-on-one,” Lindow added. “The most important part is to set the expectation from the beginning, even before securing the contract or appointment, that safety is the top priority and won’t be sacrificed. That initial, upfront conversation provides insights into the type of people you’ll be flying, and how readily they’ll accept your judgment. If there are issues, you should consider seeking employment elsewhere.”


As with many other situations, the difference between tense confusion and solid understand-ing rests on the flight crew’s ability to convey the reasons for the delay, cancellation or other changes.

“Come with options,” suggested Whannell. “Make clear that you know you’re presenting a decision contrary to what they expected to happen. And don’t be surprised if they have questions. You may know all the variables that led to that decision, but your passengers do not. Your job is to communicate that to them and close the communications gap.”

Pilots should also not be offended by such passenger questions.

“They aren’t challenging your authority, just asking for you to justify it,” Whannell continued. “They’re trying to gain the same level of information as you. It’s just a matter of qualifying the ‘no.’”

Lindow agrees that the ability to present options helps smooth over any flight planning hiccups.

“It’s not just about being able to say ‘no,’ but saying ‘no’ while being able to present options – delay the flight, leave earlier, go to a different airport, or possibly even arrange alternative transportation. Many executives are Type A personalities – as are many pilots – and while they may not be used to someone saying ‘no,’ it’s more important to them that you have a plan to fix it.”


Sometimes an inflight situation leads to a diversion. Brad Lindow, a captain for a Part 91 flight department and a member of NBAA’s Small Flight Department Subcommittee recalled a flight to Arizona in which a mechanical issue popped up en route. This led the crew to divert from their original fuel stop at a general aviation airport near Oklahoma City to the larger nearby Will Rogers World Airport (OKC).

“We did this for a few reasons,” explained Lindow. “There were more service options available at OKC, and the longer runway provided an extra margin of safety. However, the primary reason was for the convenience of our passengers, as there were more alternatives at the larger airport to get them to where they needed to go in the event we couldn’t complete the flight that day.

“Sure enough, after troubleshooting the issue, it became clear we couldn’t continue on, but they were able to catch a flight to their destination with minimal delay.”