Aviation Safety is a Team Sport
Chesley B. Sullenberger III – October 11th, 2011
Prior to January 15, 2009, one of the things of which I was most professionally proud was my involvement in making aviation safer. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I – along with several dozen other pilots, many of whom were also safety committee volunteers – helped develop, implement and teach a leadership and teambuilding course at US Airways called Crew Resource Management (CRM).
After decades of technological, procedural and training improvements, CRM was a way for us to address the human performance element of the safety equation. CRM helped us take a collection of individual pilots and flight attendants (who might not have known each other at the beginning of a week-long flying trip) and quickly form them into an effective team. CRM teaches the cognitive and interpersonal skills needed to create and lead a team effectively. By creating this immediate sense of bonding among crew members, the hope was that if they faced a sudden emergency on the first flight of their trip they would be as prepared to deal with it as they would be after working together over many days. More importantly, CRM teaches captains to be better leaders and to have better working relationships with crewmembers. It shows captains how to set a proper and positive tone that creates an atmosphere of mutual respect and opens channels of communication by soliciting feedback from every member of the team. It aligns goals, reduces hierarchy and makes clear our roles and responsibilities, not only to our passengers but to each other.I was given an opportunity to put these lessons into action on a cold, winter day at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport (MSP). It had snowed before our arrival, and all of the ramp workers and ground crew were bundled up in their parkas and gloves, most trying to get their jobs done as quickly as possible so they could get out of the frigid weather. About 5-10 minutes after we arrived at the gate, once we had begun to de-plane our passengers and the ramp workers had started their work, one of the baggage employees sought me out to alert me to a problem he had noticed – there was oil dripping from the right engine. He was concerned this could pose a safety risk on our next flight. I listened attentively to his concerns and asked my first officer to take a look at the problem during his pre-flight rounds. He did, also noticed the same problem, and we decided to call US Airways maintenance to inspect the aircraft. After conferring with each other and the maintenance team, we ultimately decided that the engine had simply been over-serviced and there was no threat to safety.
But I didn’t just leave it at that. I wanted to close the loop. Using my best CRM skills – because really, how often do we have an opportunity to practice what we preach? – I decided that rather than call the employee back into the cockpit, I would go to him. I put on my coat and went out into the cold to seek out this individual. I talked to him about the process and informed him of our finding, but I also thanked him for noticing the issue and bringing it to my attention. I encouraged him to do the same if a similar situation ever presented itself in the future.What’s important about this story is that this individual did not have an assigned role on the safety team. His core responsibility was loading and unloading baggage, but he took the time to observe his surroundings. He had the awareness to notice something, the knowledge to know that this might lead to a bad outcome, and the initiative to share his observations. He didn’t only focus on his own tasks; he felt a greater responsibility for the safety of our passengers, even though it wasn’t his core function. He went out of his way to do something not in his job description – in miserable weather, no less. It wasn’t convenient for him, and he wouldn’t be rewarded. In fact, his supervisor probably never even knew that he had taken this action. But I did. And he did.
With this decision, he made our passengers safer. And with my response, I made it more likely that another captain on another flight on another day would have the benefit of the knowledge that this worker might possess that the captain might not. Each step in the process is critical to ensuring safety, and we must promote a culture where every person on the team – no matter what their level of responsibility – is empowered to speak up when needed.CRM helped us create this kind of culture at our airline. We fostered a shared sense of responsibility for the outcome among everyone in the organization. We taught captains that CRM was not a threat to their authority, but an opportunity to use all their resources – flight attendants, dispatchers, air traffic controllers, mechanics, even the ground crew– as part of their team. This made possible better information, better decisions, better trapping of errors, and better management of risk. I encourage you to do the same within your own organization, no matter what domain or industry you work in.