The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced every segment of business aviation to reconsider the definition of operational excellence. Procedures, policies and rules once considered sacrosanct may now be difficult or impossible to implement. In an environment already stressed by a contagious virus and economic uncertainty, ensuring that new operating procedures adhere to best practices will be difficult. However, by using the proven principles of change management, organizations can minimize the impact of change on people, passengers and operations.
Change management typically can be employed in any situation that introduces new processes to an operation.
“Normally, what drives the biggest amount of change management in our industry is the introduction of a new aircraft, especially if that aircraft type is new to an operator’s fleet,” says David Ryan, vice president of aviation for a West Coast Part 91 operator. “But change management can apply to any situation that impacts operations, such as a new facility or new employees.”
“Change management is designed for a problem like COVID-19. As we adapt to the changes that need to be made because of the pandemic, change management fits right in.”
David Ryan Vice President of Aviation, Part 91 Operator
“Thankfully, change management is designed for a problem like COVID-19,“ continued Ryan. “As we adapt to the changes that need to be made because of the pandemic, change management fits right in. It’s important for our industry to know that we have many tools to help us get through this, and change management is one of those tools.”
According to Vanessa Blacknall-Jamison – change advisor and leadership coach with the FAA’s aviation safety and flight standards leadership development team, change management group – the true value of change management is the focus on preparing and supporting individual employees to implement new procedures, policy or rules.
“Organizations do not change, individuals change organizations,” explains Blacknall-Jamison. “Aviation professionals are very technical people, so we excel at project management, but the importance of change management is that it truly focuses on risk mitigation, executive sponsorship and the people side of change,” she adds.
The distinction between project management and change management is important, says Blacknall-Jamison.
“The technical side of change can get the job done, but if individuals don’t buy into the change, it’s not going to work successfully,” she notes.
There are many different approaches to change management, but they all share the common goal of improving operations, says Ryan. Change management plans typically last a few months, although major programs like the building of a new facility can keep a change management plan open longer.
I think with COVID-19, we’ll see change management plans active for multiple years,” says Ryan.
While each change management plan is temporary, their impact can be lasting.
“If a procedure needs to change, the change management plan will identify that requirement, so you capture that change and make it part of the department’s policies or procedures,” says Ryan.
According to Bennet Walsh, International Standard of Business Aviation Operations (IS-BAO) program director at the International Business Aviation Council, business aviation professionals can approach change management like safety management.
“In change management, you think through the various risks of that change and how you mitigate them,” explained Walsh. “It is very similar to threat and error management, but in an organizational and systemic way.”
The novel coronavirus introduces an added complexity for change management, adds Walsh, because the pandemic’s impact was so comprehensive.
“Everything needs to be touched by this,” asserts Walsh. “The more detailed the change management process is for your adaptation to the pandemic, the better. So ideally, your stakeholders will include your flight crew, your ground handling, your pre-flight suppliers, your cleaners, your trip planners. With the pandemic, you will have to consider what happens if your caterer suddenly closes or cannot deliver? Or if your crews are considered essential workers, are there going to be quarantine issues? COVID-19 has so many impact points, so the more stakeholders that are involved in the pre-planning, the more successful a change management plan will be,” Walsh says.
However, Walsh notes that smaller operators also can utilize change management to adapt to the pandemic.
“If you are a small operator, change management could be as simple as a thorough pre-flight departure brief,” explains Walsh. “The process is exactly the same: you use a clear line of communication to identify the risks ahead of you, and then find out what you need to do to mitigate them,” he says.
For change management to reach its fullest potential, organizations must remain committed to its success, adds Walsh. “A lot of people think that once they implement change management, that the goal has been completed. At IBAC, we believe that there must be a continuous effort for improvement. Make sure you hear from the people on the front lines to ensure that the changes worked, and make adjustments, if necessary.”
Updating Emergency Response Plans in the COVID-19 Era
While some operators had the foresight to incorporate a pandemic in their emergency response plan (ERP) before COVID-19 spread, the extent and duration of the global novel coronavirus outbreak and its impact on every aspect of the supply chain compels even the most diligent to consider some appropriate updates to ERPs.
“ERPs have always been an important part of any flight operation, as aviation comes with an inherent responsibility to be prepared,” says Don Chupp, president and CEO of Fireside Partners, an emergency services provider to the business aviation community. “But unlike most emergencies, which are isolated events you respond to and recover from, the pandemic has the longevity and breadth of reach, requiring, at the very least, a review of your planning strategy to ensure it evolves with the changing nature of the system.”
When considering updates to any ERP, an organization must ensure the plan includes a responsible return to full operations.
“None of us can afford to have an emergency just shut us down,” says Chupp. “You must make sure your ERP starts with the emergency and brings you all the way back around to a return to [full] operations.”
Operating during a pandemic involving a highly contagious virus will require thresholds, says Chupp.
“The pandemic isn’t something you can fix with a safety gun. You are going to have to develop a threshold strategy that appreciates the nuances of the pandemic situation. The strategy you employ for a passenger reporting a close contact will be very different from the strategy for a passenger displaying overt symptoms of severe illness,” he explained.
To determine these thresholds, Chupp advises organizations to follow the same strategy he recommends for anyone wishing to create an ERP:
“Gather the executive group and ask them where they would like the company to be six months after an emergency,” suggests Chupp. “What goals do they have, and what objectives will be needed to get there? Then you write the procedures that support those goals and objectives. If you don’t have an in-house capability to do it, find somebody you trust that can help.
“I do think a pandemic operations plan is something that everybody has got to have if they intend to go flying. It is not only the responsible thing to do, I would say it is the only defensible thing to do.”