Ensuring collaboration between pilots, schedulers, maintenance technicians and flight attendants is a never-ending but worthwhile quest.

Sept. 14, 2015

“When I came into business aviation 20 years ago, there was this parochialism in the industry,” said Jim Buchanan, a Certified Aviation Manager (CAM) and administration director for a Fortune 100 company’s aviation department. “It seemed the pilots knew they were the most important people in the flight department, the mechanics knew they were the most important, and,” Buchanan added humorously, “the schedulers let everyone else think that while knowing they really ran the department.”

Walk into a Part 91 or 135 hangar today, and the culture will feel different, but a flight department isn’t like other business units: it’s made up of professionals with very different skills, performing specific jobs in settings as different as a cockpit, a hangar or a desk. That tends to create functional silos.

“Traditionally, those silos were pretty stout and strong,” said Buchanan, who is also chair of NBAA’s CAM Governing Board. “And that certainly made the business less efficient, because you don’t fully consider the influences of the other functions.”

While shifts in workplace culture and industry initiatives like the International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations (IS-BAO) have driven more collaboration between pilots, schedulers, maintenance technicians and flight attendants, there’s still a need to focus on working together.

“When it comes to breaking down silos, I don’t think you’re ever really done,” said Pat Cunningham, director of aviation for PepsiCo, who, like Buchanan and all other sources for this article, is also a CAM. “It’s something you work on every day and every year, by emphasizing that we’re all in this together.”

Damaging to Customer Service and Safety

Silos aren’t just inefficient; they can lead to service lapses that undermine the mission of the flight department.

“I call it the ‘stealth airplane effect,’” said Blair Robson, manager of aircraft maintenance at a Dallas-based Fortune 50 company. “The pilots come back with a list of minor discrepancies in the log, and we don’t have time to address them before the next flight. If the pilots had called those in from the road, we could’ve ordered parts and cleared the discrepancies before the next flight.”

Maintenance technicians need to be proactive, too, by notifying the schedulers when they need to take the airplane out of service for maintenance over the next few months, and for how long. That way, schedulers can help advise which days are best to have the airplane out of service, based on passenger needs.

An interruption in service is a big lapse, but flight departments can fall short of customer expectations in lots of little ways if they don’t communicate. Passengers often think of the flight operation as one seamless service. They may not know they’re talking to a contract flight attendant who the department only hires four times a year, so if they tell that member of the crew they’re allergic to a certain food, they’d be disappointed to be served it again.

There’s always a communication gap between pilots, maintenance and schedulers, because we all have different levels of knowledge depending on what we’re talking about.

BLAIR ROBSON – CAM and Manager of Aircraft Maintenance at a Fortune 50 Company

“The airplane can be perfectly safe and dispatch-ready, but not mission-ready,” said Kellie Rittenhouse, director of aviation services for Hangar Aviation Management. “If a passenger gets on the plane for the third time, and the Wi-Fi isn’t fixed, they’re going to think you didn’t listen to them [when they noted the outage previously]. But the pilot they told may not fly that airplane again for six weeks.”

Flight departments need ways to share information, whether through post-trip briefings or reporting processes, so aviation personnel note – and address – passenger requests, squawks and safety hazards.

“We know that accidents are never caused by any one thing; they’re the result of an error chain,” said Rittenhouse. “If you have a culture where people can’t speak up, then you expose yourself to more risk.”

Like customer service, safety depends on a sense of shared ownership and proactive communication.

“If you’re a pilot, and you’ve been on the road all day, of course you want to return to home base and sleep in your own bed,” said Rittenhouse, “but if it’s dark and the weather’s bad, is that best? With a safety management system (SMS), you do a risk assessment for every leg, and you have another set of eyes. Probably 99 percent of the time, it won’t change your decision, but safety comes down to what you do that 1 percent of the time.”

When everyone in the flight department has a greater sense of ownership, no one stands alone. “You’re looking at everything through a different lens,” said Rittenhouse. “As ownership goes up, entitlement goes down in direct proportion.”

The Communication Gap

Changing attitudes is important, but in order to work collaboratively, flight departments need to overcome the inherent challenges to communication between aviation functions.

“There’s always a communication gap between pilots, maintenance and schedulers, because we all have different levels of knowledge, depending on what we’re talking about,” said Robson. “If the pilot calls about a glitch with the flight management system (FMS), I don’t use it everyday, so I probably won’t know what he’s talking about, but if the pilot calls about the flaps, he might not even know how to run the diagnostics I’d recommend.”

One way around this problem is to encourage quick pre-flight briefings and post-flight debriefs between flight crews and maintenance staff. “We always have a two-minute meeting in the hangar before and after a flight, so the pilots and maintenance folks can talk,” said Robson, who says sometimes it’s just going over how the flight went and if there were any squawks.

It’s also especially important for flight department leaders, such as the chief pilot or maintenance director, to be able to communicate with their functional counterparts.

“In years past, it was through attrition or seniority that you became chief pilot, but that says absolutely nothing about your qualifications as a manager,” said Bill McNease, vice president of flight operations at Priester Aviation. “You might be a heck of a pilot, but a poor communicator.”

Directors who understand this tend to invest in professional development for their managers and up-and-coming leaders by sending them to colleges that offer aviation management courses. These college programs, like NBAA’s CAM program, emphasize leadership “soft skills,” as well as the financial, legal and regulatory aspects of aviation management.

On the job, directors can create opportunities for people to collaborate across functions. Cunningham ensures that his department’s customer-service committee and safety committee are composed of people from different functions.

Working Together

This can help overcome other types of silos, in addition to those between aviation functions, such as between hangar and headquarters, or between the staff at one base and the staff at another. “We have a base in New York and a base in Texas, and that can be an even bigger divide for us,” said Cunningham, “So as often as we can, we have pilots from different sites fly trips together.”

Even if staff members are split between locations, having them call into flight department meetings can be important. Also, giving different people in the department a chance to present at staff meetings can boost a shared sense of ownership.

There’s no standard rule for how often to hold staff meetings. At Priester Aviation, McNease runs a daily meeting from 9 to 9:30 a.m. The chief of staff, director of maintenance, CFO and other managers participate.

“It’s a roundtable,” said McNease. “We go over the trips scheduled for today and tomorrow, the weather, any maintenance issues across the fleet, how we’re doing against our budget and anything to plan for.” The meetings offer leaders at Priester an opportunity to collaborate in real-time, to maximize aircraft availability, customer service and safety.

“For example,” said McNease, “if the director of maintenance says we have an airplane coming out of inspection in four days, the chief pilot will ask how many crew we need for a test flight and to get it back to home base. Do we need to airline them out? Do we need contract crew? We work through all that together.”

On a person-to-person scale, mentoring can also help professionals from different functions understand each other.

“For example, if you hired a new pilot,” said Buchanan, “and in the first six months of their training they spent half a day shadowing the director of maintenance, observing a quality inspection or maintenance planning, that would build trust and confidence. It will give that pilot a greater appreciation for what the technicians do to return an aircraft service. It will build the lines of communication, and we break down silos when we communicate with each other.”

Management Guide Helpful Hint

While the NBAA Management Guide does not specifically address the notion of silos within the flight department, the “Aviation Department Personnel” section (1.6) notes that one of the responsibilities of the aviation department manager or director of aviation is “maintaining high morale through an awareness of company and department policies, employee development programs and periodic department meetings for the
two-way communication of ideas, goals and objectives.”

By holding regular aviation department meetings that include all personnel, the department manager creates a venue where concerns can be raised and addressed, thereby helping break down the silos between departments and encouraging collaborative solutions to flight department challenges.

Learn more at www.nbaa.org/management-guide.