A culture of safety should be the foundation of all business aviation operations. That extends to ensuring an operational environment that not only works to prevent accidents or incidents, but one that is also well-versed in company practice and response in the event of a mishap.
“Safety is paramount for our long-term survival,” said Jeffrey A. Poeppelman, chief pilot of administration for Nationwide Aviation Business Center and a member of NBAA’s Business Aviation Management Committee. “A safety culture takes time to build and can be decimated in an instant, and it takes a long time to rebuild customer confidence if it’s compromised by even the perception of safety concerns.”
In addition to the human toll, reputational damage and exposure to liability are among the top concerns for C-suite executives in the aftermath of an accident. While the flight operation shoulders significant responsibilities in those areas, the longtime director of aviation for a Fortune 100 company noted that it also provides an opportunity to be the model for safety and responsible practices for the entire company.
“The flight operation sets the example,” he said. “The aviation function can protect the company’s reputation by putting the safety and wellness of their passengers first, which also serves to protect the brand.”
“Work to ensure your principals have at least a high-level understanding of your operation’s safety culture. When flying normal trips, demonstrate to your passengers what you’re doing to conduct a safe flight. ”
Jeffrey A. Poeppelman Chief Pilot of Administration, Nationwide Aviation Business Center
That extends to the effects a flight operation’s safety record can have on the company’s ability to maintain and grow its workforce at a time when the industry already faces challenges to attracting qualified people.
“A lot of opportunities will be out there as the industry recovers from COVID and the pilot shortage reemerges,” said Mark Scheele, CAM, chief pilot for a Midwest flight operation. “Applicants will be looking at your safety history and safety culture, and they’ll be asking questions.
“If an employee or applicant doesn’t feel safety is a priority, they’ll look somewhere else,” he explained.
“That may then result in the need to hire less-experienced workers, who might then increase the chances for an accident or incident taking place – it could become a vicious circle.”
Working With the C-Suite
Considering the likely fallout from an accident, there are many incentives for aviation personnel to work together with company executives to craft a cohesive and effective safety culture and, most importantly, put it into practice.
“You need to accept some risk when operating airplanes, but we want to reduce it as low as reasonably practical,” Poeppelman said. “Safety shouldn’t be just a bullet item on a PowerPoint presentation. Work to ensure your principals have at least a high-level understanding of your operation’s safety culture. When flying normal trips, demonstrate to your passengers what you’re doing to conduct a safe flight.”
Scheele recommended working with company executives and human resources personnel to craft a safety statement, signed by all parties involved, acknowledging the shared interests of maintaining the highest level of safety in the flight operation.
“C-suite executives or human resources personnel don’t necessarily understand what a safe flight operation looks like,” said Scheele, who said it is the flight operation’s responsibility “to ensure they understand our mission.”
“People make mistakes all the time, and honest mistakes should be something we learn from and not something to be punished for.”
Mark Scheele CAM, Chief Pilot for a Midwest Operator
Personnel from across the company should also work together in crafting a strategic response plan built around a culture of transparency. The Fortune 100 company aviation director said, “That approach must be developed, tested and modified for the specific needs of an aviation operation to ensure the result is established, fair and transparent to the company.”
Scheele also emphasized the need for “an open, consequence-free attitude within the company” that encourages all employees to report operational errors or accidental deviations from best practices.
“People make mistakes all the time,” he explained, “and honest mistakes should be something we learn from and not something to be punished for. Otherwise, those mistakes will be hidden, and something will eventually go wrong.”
Creating the Right Environment
That open environment should also be evident and demonstrable to insurance providers.
“We do a pretty deep dive when considering taking on a new client or flight operation,” said Barbara Sandberg, an aviation and aerospace associate with insurance broker AHT Insurance. “We sit down with the operator and discuss their practices to try and gather that high-level information and figure out what dispatch protocols and safety practices are in place and in use.”
“As brokers, our job in this process is really to show insurance carriers why a particular operation’s risk profile is better than what their actuarial tables are telling them,” added AHT Insurance’s Managing Advisor Jamie Madonna. “The way we do that is by being able to demonstrate that training and safety are built into the operation’s standard practices.”
“As brokers, our job in this process is really to show insurance carriers why a particular operation’s risk profile is better than what their actuarial tables are telling them. ”
Jamie Madonna Managing Advisor, AHT Insurance
While larger flight operations may benefit from a greater number of available resources, many of the same practices can be implemented by smaller operators. For example, Scheele’s operation utilizes a flight risk assessment tool to determine the risks ahead of every flight, with each assessment reviewed by the flight operation’s safety officer.
“Our company knows that if the flight is doable safely, then we’ll do it,” he said, “but there isn’t any pushback when we say we can’t. They have clearly told us there’s no meeting worth dying for.”
The Fortune 100 aviation director noted a company’s response plan must also account for its use of third parties to provide alternative travel solutions, such as charter and fractional ownership options.
“There is generally an understanding of a company’s flight operation at the corporate level,” he said, “but as more companies utilize outside travel providers, it may not be immediately clear which entity holds operational control. You need to evaluate those gaps, as that will affect your response in the event of an accident.”
If the Worst Happens
If an incident or accident occurs, it’s vital for personnel throughout a company to adhere to the emergency or strategic response plan. From the insurer’s perspective, “immediate, full disclosure” is important in such circumstances, said Barbara Sandberg, an aviation and aerospace associate with insurance broker AHT Insurance.
“There’s nothing to be gained by obfuscating; it’s going to come out in the end,” she said. “You must have an open dialogue with your [insurance carrier] and trust them to make sure that everything is handled in a manner that is above board and consistent with best practices and professionalism.”
Jeffrey A. Poeppelman, chief pilot for Nationwide Aviation Business Center, agreed, although he noted, “while, of course, it’s important for all sides to be party to the investigation, I’d caution anyone from speaking too freely.
“Legal counsel is vital to protecting company interests and the interests of those involved, especially as the investigation moves into uncharted areas,” Poeppelman added. “There’s no substitute for their experience; consult with them to make sure you get it right.”
While there are many facets to consider in the aftermath of an incident or accident, AHT Insurance’s Managing Advisor Jamie Madonna said that flight operations should look to their insurance provider as an additional member of their safety team, not as an adversary.
“You can build all sorts of processes and procedures, but rarely will all of them be tested at the same time,” said Madonna, who acknowledged that while accidents in the industry may happen, “the real differentiators are going to be what your operation is doing to prevent one.”