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Orescan: Fixing the Problem…

Establishing good communications and understanding what’s required


October 15, 2007
By Chris Orescan

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The relationship between pilots and maintenance personnel should be a good one, and for some fortunate people it is just that. However, many more suffer from just the opposite. Myself, I have been on both sides, and I expect it will change a few more times over the balance of my career. Pilots blame maintenance for not fixing their airplanes properly and maintenance blame pilots for constantly breaking them. Often the relationship is stressed by the effect of certain managers, owners, government regulators and lack of good communication and common sense. Ideally the relationship between pilots and maintenance should be valued, considering that maintenance people help keep us safe and keep the aircraft in the air – and without pilots breaking (pardon the pun) the aircraft there would be no need for maintenance people. 

Arguably, the relationship between crews and maintenance personnel will vary greatly depending on the type of operation, its size, its financial strength, the experience level of its people and lastly, the union involvement.  As pilots we are hired to fly and manage aircraft, machines which require maintenance, and they do often have mechanical problems requiring work.  The government has taken a different view over the past decade on the required training a crew should be required to complete on aircraft systems.  Fortunately, we have seen the old days of ‘post-it notes’ indicating broken or unserviceable systems by flight crews being replaced by the proper use of Minimum Equipment Lists (MELs) and proper snags of items not covered by the MEL, and yet gray areas still exist.

The first basic problem affecting this relationship is the lack of good communication: does the crew wait around to discuss the problem with the AME or do they just snag it and get out as fast as they can?  Did the crew troubleshoot the problem?  Did they try different actions and take notes as to what they tried and what the results and parameters were?  Did the AME talk with the crew to try and get a good understanding of what was happening and what they experienced?  Is maintenance simply checking a snag and reporting it ground serviceable when the problem does not reappear, or are they trying to dig further by troubleshooting the problem, and do they report their effort to the crew so that they work together on the problem?  These basic communication challenges are often minimized by experience level of both sides. 

An aging fleet of aircraft can be very challenging to keep in the air – some require many hours of maintenance for every hour of flight.  A lack of parts and/or expertise on specific aircraft can be costly and frustrating to a company and its employees. Although all of this may seem like an illogical expense, it may be a better financial solution than simply replacing an aging aircraft with a brand new one.  The old expression of trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear comes to mind with this dilemma.  Regardless of the reason or rationale, some have to face this situation regularly and should not be deterred in trying to establish good communications practices and an understanding of what is required.

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Personally, I feel that when it comes to 703, 704 and 604 operations, companies should promote good communication and education and have all flight crews trained for elementary maintenance so that the best possible synergy can be achieved.  Too often and sadly I have witnessed cases of lines being drawn: “It’s them, not us” is touted as an excuse and little or nothing is done to correct this outlook and amazingly the cycle continues. Just like any good relationship, attitudes and egos need to be set aside to develop a better understanding, to educate and assist one another in developing good communication between departments without the fear of repercussions.

Over our careers, we have all seen aircraft that we knew or felt strongly were not safe or airworthy, and likely some are still flying, endangering people and property. Nevertheless, trends and habits are slowly changing. I do, however, believe we still have much further to go. SMS is a step toward this, but we must continually evaluate whether these types of challenges can be addressed using our current practices. The government wants accountability and safety costs money – but that’s just my two cents.

Chris Orescan is an industry observer, pilot and author of the book, Becoming a Professional Pilot in Canada. You can contact Chris at: corescan@shaw.ca.