Friday, May 18, 2007

Risk Management or Micromanagement?

I've found that the biggest difference between general aviation and airline flying is the level of standardization. As big and complicated as a Megawhacker must seem to the average GA pilot, I suspect your average Seneca flyer would be comfortable with it after a few hours in the sim. What most GA pilots could not easily adapt to, however, is the regimentation of flow patterns, checklists, memory items, limitations, standard profiles, and emergency procedures. As a CFI, I had to hound students to consistently use a simple checklist. The airlines will not hire you unless they believe you have the ability and discipline to follow established procedures every flight.

It wasn't always this way. During the airlines' early days, each captain was truly the master of his ship; things were done his way and copilots were expected to adapt. World War II provided the impetus for change as the demands of war required thousands of pilots to be trained quickly. Standardization of procedures substituted for experience in providing the consistency the military demanded. The advent of jet aircraft necessitated the airlines' adoption of the military's methods.

Today, the Captain is still nominally the master of his or her ship - but they'd better comply with the Flight Standards Manual, or else! There are certainly a good many advantages to this approach. First Officers no longer have to adjust to the whims of each Captain and Captains don't have to guess how to avoid falling astray of the chief pilot or check airmen. We all know what is expected of us. Having everyone on the same page allows flight standards managers to more effectively manage risks. Air travel has never been safer.

If everything in aviation were neat, tidy, and clear-cut, complete standardization over every aspect of flight would be utterly acceptable, even desirable. The reality is that aviation is fluid, ever-changing, and sometimes unpredictable. It punishes those who confine themselves to a small box of rote procedures with no room for variance. There was a NASA study that found that around 80% of airline emergencies involved situations for which there is no checklist. This demands crews that are adept at gathering available information, critically thinking through the options, and making smart decisions without worry that their actions will be questioned by those safely esconded in their cubicles. It requires experienced pilots who've seen a strange thing or two before and know how to bend established procedures to fit the situation. A culture which dictates every action for every phase of flight and demands blind compliance is not the best environment to produce such pilots.

The inability of many flight standards managers to realize that procedures cannot and should not be written for every conceivable situation has produced a disconnect between those who write the procedures and those who fly them. While flight standards people often have encyclopedic knowledge, many line pilots consider them to be out of touch with the realities of the line. We call them "bean counters." We are particularly vexed when they consistently take quantitative approaches to risk management which ignore the real-world consequences.

One example of this at my own airline came over a change in landing procedures. I've written before that the Megawhacker is a harder-than-average airplane to land well, given a six degree maximum pitch angle for tailstrike avoidance. In the past, we had the option to do landings at Flaps 15 or 35. F15 is the harder of the two because your angle of attack on approach puts you closer to maximum pitch on touchdown. Furthermore, the situations that require F15 landings are often marginal ones: Cat III approaches or heavy, hot & high landings at mountainous airports. In the past, many line pilots (myself included) made it a point to practice one or two F15 landings per trip to keep ourselves sharp in case we had to do one in marginal conditions.

Now, we've never had a tailstrike, but other airlines have, and it's a very costly occurrence that management would like to avoid. The flight standards people decided that the best way to reduce our exposure to the risk was to reduce the number of F15 landings we did by restricting when crews could do them. They issued a FSM revision that made F35 the standard configuration and permitted F15 landings only when flown by the Captain using the Heads-Up Guidance System. Now, many first officers, some of whom had been flying the Megawhacker since we first got them, took this as an insult to their abilities. The company countered that they merely wanted crews to use the HGS, since it provides tailstrike protection in its symbology, and this is on the captain's side only. But the revision also restricted F15 landings to Cat III approaches during less than Cat I weather, or when performance required it - in other words, under marginal conditions only. Yes, they were reducing the number of F15 landings, but they were ensuring the remainder were flown by pilots who might've not done one in months.

In the wake of our 16C overrun incident, the flight standards people realized that the revision had unwittingly prohibited Captains from practicing Cat III approaches for proficiency. So now they're planning on revising the FSM once again, to require three Cat III practice approaches every 90 days! It is this sort of reactive micromanagement that makes line pilots disdainful of the "bean counters." If a line pilot were writing this section of the FSM, it would say:
The Captain will use discretion in selecting landing configuration to be used, taking into account weather conditions, aircraft weight, performance requirements, currency, and any other factor he or she believes could affect the safety of landing in any given configuration.

That's it - easy to use and it directs the Captain to be conservative while acknowledging that the Captain is best suited to choose the safest course of action. Of course, it would give the company lawyers less specific things to accuse the Captain of when they're trying to distance the company from his actions after an accident.

I fully recognize the benefits of having flight standards to follow and of having people dedicated to managing our risk exposure. I just wished they realized that micromanaging the cockpit has its own negative consequences, that Captain's authority is a positive thing that should be reinforced, and that asking the pilots who fly the line every day before making revisions would result in much better procedures that don't attempt to do a Captain's job for him.


Anonymous Joaquin said...

Hey Sam,

I've never been involved in flight operations at anywhere near the level of standardization that you're talking about, and I've always really enjoyed being able to make my own decisions about how best to operate the airplane. Do you ever regret not pursuing a career path in aviation that would have allowed you more autonomy in the cockpit? Are any of your colleagues at the airline driven mad by the level of micromanagement dictated by the SOPs, to the extent that it destroys any enjoyment they would otherwise derive from the job? (I can tell you're frustrated, but you seem to be coping.) Lastly, have you run up against any situations in the cockpit where, more than simply being a nuisance, the SOPs actually significantly reduced safety?

Thanks, Joaquin

3:08 PM  
Blogger Fred said...

Great post again, Sam.

As a computer system administrator, while I may not be in charge of any critical systems, I believe I have an understanding of managing complex systems and trying to merge that responsibility with the demands of my management for and on those systems. In my experience, I have come to believe that the best-run systems are those which have as little interference on management's part.

Like you, I can understand the need for rules and regulations (in my world, it's more along the lines of documentation, systems patching, and backup, the most dreary parts of administration) and while they are important, those can easily become the sole focus of systems management, forgetting the role these machines are supposed to be playing--providing a particular service.

This topic is and has always been interesting to me. Michael Crichton has a treatise on complex systems management in one of his latest novels. I'm attempting to finish reading the book, Sources Of Power, that attempts to understand human responses to emergency management.

To cut to the quick of the matter, as a professional, pilot or system administrator (or whatever), management should and must recognize they hired these people to do a job. Let them do it. It works in economics, it works in politics (or would, if the socialists would let it!) it should work in complex systems management.

If possible, would you write on checklist use and design philosophy. I've always heard of "flow," and I'd like to know how it's used in the airlines and how, as a lowly student pilot, I could use (and design) a checklist and other procedures for myself.

5:33 PM  
Blogger Sam said...

Sorry for not responding sooner, Fred. My next post will discuss flow patterns and checklists, and checklist usage at the airlines vs in the GA world.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Safety risk management is now mandatory by law in my country. Some of the scope is getting crazy and sometime makes daily work inefficiency. This is what I can tell from this Is this for real?

10:00 PM  

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