10 things the aviation industry can teach us about preparedness and safety

In my former job as a pilot at Norwegian, I was regularly exposed to considerable risk. Primarily in my car on the way to Gardermoen airport. It sounds like a joke considering that I worked in an aluminium cylinder filled up with highly combustible jet fuel and roared through the skies at a speed of 850 km/h with hundreds of people on board, but the risk of dying in a traffic accident is greater than to die in a plane crash. The reason for this is that the aviation industry is incredibly adept in calculating risk and to build routines and procedures to minimize it. All enterprises can learn to do this equally well. Let’s learn from the best.

1. Insight

Flying is inextricably associated with mortal danger. American aviation authorities realized this after having lost a large number of pilots and mail planes during the 1920s. They laid down the foundation for a worldwide security culture that is among the best there is.

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2. Risk assessment

With insight, analysis follows. Why is flying dangerous? What are the risks? Are there phases that are especially vulnerable?

3. Risk reduction

You may have wondered why you always need to straighten your chair and fold up the table at take-off and landing? If the plane has to be evacuated, these items will hinder free movement. This is a tiny speck in the large picture that is made up of all the security measures taken at each and every flight, having one and only one purpose: Reducing risk.

4. Procedures

Safety is the cabin personnel’s most important task, not serving coffee. From the passenger seat, you get a small insight into their various procedures as they go through their pre-flight safety instructions. The cabin personnel and the pilot have put together a detailed plan for the flight and they carry out numerous safety routines and drills before taking off. Always. No exceptions.

5. Communication

At all times, several hundred planes are in the air around the world’s busiest airports. Therefore, there exists an elaborately planned set of rules for how the planes communicate with the tower and with each other. The language used is English, and the words, syntax and concepts are predetermined. Everyone starting to speak identifies him or herself, and acknowledges when a message is received. All planes hear the tower and every other plane, contributing to a shared understanding of the current situation.

6. Quality system

The people who build and service the planes are so quality minded that it is almost never any real need for the emergency drills that those flying the planes go through every day. In practice, this is a matter of confidence between the manufacturers, authorities (requirements) and passengers. If planes from one particular manufacturer were exposed to crashes and incidents, the manufacturer would surely go out of business rather quickly.

7. Training

The engine stopping during take-off is among the most critical incidents that can happen during a flight. Pilots train for this eventuality before every flight, and twice a year in a simulator. Most pilots don’t experience this happening during their whole career, but nonetheless, a large amount of resources are expended for them to master it. It shows how thoroughly the aviation industry works to reduce the consequences of an unwanted incident. If it is defined as a risk, it must be handled as a risk. That takes training.

8. Handling of deviations

I have never experienced any organization where people were more eager to report their own errors than in Norwegian. In the aviation industry, there exists a fabulous culture of reporting where everyone is encouraged to report errors and deviations. The management’s fair and acknowledging treatment of those submitting the reports is of course part of this culture.

9. Improvement

Error and deviation reports go straight into the improvement system. Errors that are reported regularly are included in simulator training. Each individual sees that their contribution is taken seriously and recognizes the importance of the work.

10. Building a culture

All parties in the aviation industry have understood that preparedness and safety is concerned with all aspects of the business. Everyone who has anything to do with the business, even as passengers, come to recognize this straight away. Thoroughly prepared routines, clear roles, clear lines of communication, excellent quality systems, thorough training and well functioning deviation reporting are natural components of everyone’s work day. The employees become ambassadors for a culture of safety, and the management values this, not only in words, but in action too.

> Read also: The executive's guide to building a culture of preparedness

Is this relevant to me?

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that this is not relevant to your enterprise. Please, think again. Start by thinking through the risks associated with the business you are in. When you have, read through the above list and make an assessment as to how well you are handling that point.

Remember, even if life and health are not at stake, an unwanted incident may lead to such things as lost production, pollution or loss of reputation. These are dramatic consequences for any business.

But the good news is, everyone can match the aviation industry when it comes to preparedness and safety. We would avoid a lot of accidents and reduce the harmful effects of those that occur.


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By Martin Lilleøen

Martin is a graduate pilot and flight instructor with 11 years experience from international aviation. He has extensive experience in risk management and work from high reliability organizations. In One World, he is an advisor on risk, security and emergency preparedness, and working with RAV analyzes and configuration of crisis management tools.

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