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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Keven Moore: Superb airline safety results may overshadow signs of future problems

Early on in my profession, in the mid-’90s, I once found myself sitting in an airport a bit nervous about boarding a plane after watching a report about an airplane accident that had recently occurred.
 

(Photo provided by Keven Moore)

Like most people, I have always been a little leery of flying, even though my air traffic controller father would often take me flying out at Bluegrass Field, always assuring me that flying is the safest form of transportation. The issue with me isn’t that I’m 30,000 feet in the air traveling 400 to 500 mph, it’s the fact that as a passenger I have to relinquish control of my personal safety into the hands of total strangers that may or may not be having a bad day.
 

Despite earning a master’s in my profession and with all my years of experience, it was at that moment in the airport that I learned the single and most powerful principle as a loss control and safety consultant. As I spotted a USA TODAY newspaper headline that said “The FAA Believes In A Zero Accident Culture, Says the Director of the FAA,” it hit me. I realized that to prevent accidents, people in authority and leadership have to believe that they can and that they will do so. Then everybody needs to hear and see that every action taken supports that belief in order to accomplish such a goal. As citizens of the United States, we all expect as much from our government, do we not?
 

Now I think that everybody working in the airline industry realizes that there may always be airline accidents. However, we all expect our government and the industry to treat all accidents as being preventable or we would instead favor riding trains and boarding slow boats across the pond.
 

Stop and think about it – our government will spend millions and millions of dollars to meticulously reconstruct the wreckage of an entire plane the length of half a football field, and will send submarines to the bottom of our oceans to retrieve all those pieces of that wreckage, if that is what it takes to determine the cause of one single commercial airline accident. It is that culture and mindset that we all expect of our government. To truly achieve a zero accident culture ,you have to first believe. Then when an accident does occurs at a later date, you treat that accident as your last accident while you thoroughly investigate the causes and try to prevent it from ever occurring ever again.
 

Prior to this change in culture, the Federal Aviation Administration had implemented and introduced all sorts of new technologies and placed all kinds of rules, regulations, training certification on airline industry, but they were still having accidents. It wasn’t until they focused on the culture before they were able to take a quantum leap toward reducing airline accidents.
 

Since the airline industry has taken on such a culture, safety has improved dramatically; the airline industry and regulators have since learned to analyze massive quantities of data for abnormality and have voluntarily made changes to head off potential problems. Many airlines today proactively address issues prior to waiting for an incident to occur, and information technology has revolutionized the way this is accomplished.
 

As a result of this cultural shift, the risk of a fatal accident in commercial aviation has been reduced to 1 out of 49 million flights over the past five years, from 1 in 1.7 million flights from 1975 to 1989, according to NTSB records. That’s a 96 percent decrease in risk.
 

Over the years business owners, CFOs and presidents have told me that they are in compliance with OSHA and have a good safety program, but they continuously have the same type and number of accidents year after year. When in fact the issue isn’t being compliant with OSHA and having a good safety program, as they in themselves don’t prevent accidents. What matters is what type of culture that you have created to prevent future accidents. Otherwise, what happens is that a gap begins to form and the culture is the disconnect and any good safety results are simply a matter of dumb luck.
 

Unfortunately, once a culture shift has occurred for the good, far too often budget cuts and constraints soon become the silent, slow killer when it relates to safety, and culture slowly begins to shift back to a more of a productivity-based priority. Then you begin to see cracks in the armor and telltale signs of weakness that goes unrecognized by many. Such clues start to surface in different and settle ways. It starts with human error and many times it can be traced back to worker fatigue.
 

I’m not a trained aviation professional, but you don’t have to look far for those visual clues in the headlines of today’s media. How many times over the last couple of years have we seen pilots and airline stewards crack before or during a flight? How many times over the last year or so have we seen air traffic controller disciplined or fired for sleeping on the job? Or even a pilot landing at the wrong airport?
 

So the question is has America’s air travel system finally been pushed to the breaking point?
 

The industry safety results are some of the best in the history of aviation, but is this because we are on auto-pilot (pun intended). Are these, in fact, such clues of future or pending disaster? I suspect that these are all visual clues of budget constraints as the commercial airline industry is operating on very low profit margin and the FAA is trying to do with more with less and the pressure to perform becomes very overbearing.
 

Just recently my nephew, who just left the U.S Navy as an enlisted air traffic controller, just recently passed on a certain job with the FAA that has a median salary of $108,040, or $51.94 per hour. Why? Because of the current stress level. According to what he is hearing from his colleagues, the stress level is at some of the highest levels in history because the current administration is trying to do more with less. Such a profession is one of highest-paid jobs that doesn’t require a college education, but it comes with one of the highest amounts of stress. It’s a job where lives are at stake while one is juggling variety of tasks all at the same time.
 

I can still remember coming home from school as a boy only to find my father fast asleep on the couch as he tried to unwind after a stressful day in the tower, having worked outrageous amounts of overtime through the air traffic controller strike under President Ronald Reagan. Such stress is accumulating, and when you start to add in longer hours and overtime into the equation, this only spells out future disaster and fatigue for pilots and ATCs.
 

What concerns me is that even with the recent superb airline safety results, I believe we are starting to see small cracks in the dam and it may only be a matter of time where a major airline disaster will occur and will be the traced to fatigue as a result of budget constraints and cutbacks. I just hope I am wrong.
 

Be safe, my friends.
 

Keven Moore is director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance (www.roedinginsurance.com). He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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