While the air charter industry is experiencing a business boon during the global COVID-19 recovery, some recent high-profile Part 135 accidents highlight the need for continued – even urgent – enhancements to safety. The reduction in some companies’ hiring requirements, along with more turnover than typically seen in the industry, can also create risks, especially with unprecedented demand for charter flights and the industry’s desire to maximize revenue generation to offset the initial financial hit of COVID.
The NTSB has called on the FAA to require safety management systems (SMS) for all Part 135 operators, even highlighting SMS for commercial operations in its 10 Most Wanted List for 2021-2022 – and it’s no wonder why.
A fully implemented, robust SMS includes many components considered to be keys to safe operations – data sharing, third-party auditing and safety training. Data collection and sharing programs such as the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing (ASIAS), and other initiatives are necessary so the industry can share lessons learned and typically serve in risk management. A third-party safety audit is often used to fulfill part of the safety assurance aspect of SMS. Meanwhile, appropriate training for safety managers is found in the safety promotion component of SMS.
“NBAA has long encouraged operators to fully implement SMS, properly train safety managers and participate in narrative safety and flight data monitoring safety programs, including ASIAS and ASAP,” said Mark Larsen, NBAA’s director of safety and flight operations.
Implementation of an SMS, successful completion of a third-party safety audit, proper training for safety managers and participation in safety data sharing programs, including the FAA’s ASIAS and ASAP, are all steps to enhance safety in Part 135. But experts say those individual components are not the key ingredient: a healthy safety culture is.
NBAA’s Safety Committee has identified six characteristics of organizational professionalism, which reflects the importance of culture:
- Business Performance and Industry Engagement
- Competency in Vocational Skill
- Conduct and Image
- Continuous Improvement
“A just culture sets the stage for all other safety components,” explained Bryan Burns, president of the Air Charter Safety Foundation (ACSF). “Just culture builds to the SMS, which builds to third-party audits, with data collection through ASAP and even FDM [flight data monitoring] layered in.”
The ACSF aims to reach small to medium operators, providing resources, including a scalable SMS platform and ASAP to help develop safety culture and implement safety programs.
“Safety must be an industry effort,” said Burns. “Collectively, we go farther.”
“One of the challenges in addressing safety in charter operations is that a lot of the talk about safety has become a sales and marketing tool – somewhat big on superficial claims but short on substance,” said David Rimmer, CEO of AB Aviation Group and the survivor of a major accident himself. “If an operator can point to a third-party audit, an SMS manual on the shelf and an accident/incident-free history, then they are thought to be ‘safe,’ which isn’t necessarily true.”
“We should be educating our clients to ask about more than audit status, accident history, aircraft age and refurb dates,” Rimmer added.
So how does an operator show their true safety colors? Consider these questions:
- Does the director of safety have a seat at the decision table?
- Does the director of safety report to senior leadership?
- Are there policies and procedures to insulate pilots from unreasonable or unsafe customer demands?
“We don’t allow a patient or hospital administrator to call a brain surgeon and pressure them into performing surgery when unforeseen circumstances cause the doctor to postpone an operation. Why do we continue to allow passengers or salespeople to pressure pilots?” Rimmer asked.
A safety culture that allows a pilot to make safe decisions is especially important with today’s workforce challenges. A pilot who feels pressured to conduct an unsafe flight has opportunities to work elsewhere.
Michael Klein, a physician and the founder and CEO of OpenAir, a small flight school and charter operator in Gaithersburg, MD, found the “secret sauce” (passion for safety, plus management commitment) to safety culture when he brought on Ben Berman to help him start a Part 135 operation in 2005.
Klein says Berman’s passion for safety drove the organization’s safety efforts, while Berman says the CEO’s commitment to safety sets the tone for the entire organization and is the key to a good safety culture.
OpenAir believes so strongly that safety starts at the top, key leaders, including Klein, talk with every class of incoming employees so they can share their own perspective on why safety is the top priority at OpenAir.
The company has an SMS, scaled for a smaller organization, which Berman calls a “work in progress,” just as any true SMS should be. OpenAir also tries to promote from within – growing students into instructors and then into charter pilots. Klein says this approach enables them to instill the company’s culture early in a pilot’s career.
OpenAir utilizes a structured flight-release process that enables the company to make go/no-go decisions without undue pressure on pilots.
“We have a culture in which people can speak freely. We value an open line of communication between pilots and management,” said Klein.
When an OpenAir pilot cancels a flight for a safety reason, the pilot isn’t berated or pressured to change their mind – they’re thanked for their commitment to keeping passengers and employees safe.
“Safety is earned every day,” said Berman, explaining that each decision a pilot or organization makes is the next step toward either a positive safety culture or a culture of unnecessary risk and acceptable noncompliance.
Safety can sometimes take a backseat, especially while the industry faces soaring demand, ongoing workforce challenges or a desire to recoup losses from early pandemic days. Experts urge industry leaders to instead make safety culture a top priority.
Rimmer said accident data doesn’t lie; without significant commitment from the industry, we’ll continue to see an increase in accidents and incidents.
“Now is the time for operators and charter buyers to recommit to a robust safety culture,” said Rimmer. “Safety is not defined by a certificate on the wall, a third-party audit, or an SMS on the shelf. We need to come to terms as an industry that we need to do better.”
NBAA Safety Resources
NBAA provides a number of resources for charter operators working to improve their safety culture, including a new Safety Manager Certificate Program. The program covers six key areas of safety management:
- Safety policy
- Safety risk management
- Safety assurance
- Safety promotion
- Emergency response
NBAA’s Safety Committee has also developed resources on organizational and individual professionalism (nbaa.org/professionalism).
These resources can help organizations develop a culture that fully supports compliant, safe operations.