Leading Edge: Under the microscope

Matt Nicholls
May 06, 2011
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Spring brings with it a reaffirmation of personal and corporate goals – a chance to reassess processes, implement change and establish a new direction. And given recent events in the aviation industry south of the border, there’s plenty to analyze – at all levels of the corporate spectrum.

The “season of scrutiny” kicked off with a cruel April Fool’s joke when a five-foot-long stress fracture in the passenger cabin of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-300 airliner forced the plane to make an emergency landing at a military base near Yuma, Ariz. The plane, cruising at 34,000 feet at the time and carrying 118 passengers, landed safely without significant passenger injuries, but the harrowing incident immediately brought into question maintenance practices, and the corporate philosophy, of one of the most reliable airlines in the United States.

Southwest is the world’s largest operator of 737-300s and the specific aircraft in question had had 39,781 takeoffs and landings prior to the incident. Boeing has noted metal fatigue on the fuselage of this aircraft should not have occurred until 60,000 takeoffs and landings. The incident forced the Dallas, Texas-based airline into scramble mode, leading to the cancellation of some 700 flights the next day. A subsequent National Transportion Safety Board (NTSB) investigation of all Southwest maintenance records revealed all inspections of the plane were up to date, but it immediately raised the question of air safety on older-model aircraft throughout North America, and caused passengers to ask, “is my aircraft going to break apart in the sky?”

Plane manufacturer Boeing also experienced its fair share of public scrutiny after the incident. The NTSB concluded the rip in the fuselage was likely caused by misaligned rivet holes where two parts of the fuselage were assembled. According to the NTSB, cracks stretched from 42 of the 58 rivet holes along a nine inch wide hole. Said Boeing president and CEO James Albaugh at a conference in Washington: “It looks like there was a manufacturing issue on that plane.” And while Albaugh didn’t want to discuss what the company needs to change or do differently with its 737-300 fleet, he did take responsibility and make assertions about Boeing’s commitment to manufacturing the best planes possible.

The Southwest/Boeing near miss was just the start of the spring media frenzy. Between late March and early April, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had to deal with the sobering issue of air traffic controllers at a number of U.S. airports catching 40 winks while on the job. These disturbing events heightened the fears of passengers throughout North America, but the FAA did the right thing and fired and suspended several air traffic controllers. The FAA also took steps to combat air traffic controller fatigue, an issue Wings will cover in more depth in the future.

The media frenzy over air traffic controllers didn’t end there: a C-17 cargo plane approaching Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland came too close to a 737 carrying U.S. first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, causing more angst. The good news? It momentarily took the attention away from a frightening ground collision on a dark, wet tarmac at New York’s Kennedy Airport between an Air France A380 airliner and a Bombardier CRJ-700 regional jet operated by Comair. Some 586 passengers were on the two aircraft at the time of the collision, though fortunately none was hurt.

The media storm following these high-profile incidents was intense and justified – and a harrowing reminder the stakes are exceedingly high in the aviation industry. As the overriding theme of the brilliant 2011 CHC Safety & Quality Summit in Vancouver March 28-30 reinforced, responsibility and accountability at all levels of an organization is paramount – especially when you’re constantly in the public eye. Southwest, Boeing, the FAA – no matter what organization it is this week, making necessary changes to the corporate culture instils trust and value with customers.

“What you’re doing is really making a psychological switch at all levels of your organization,” said Bill Chiles, president and CEO of Bristow Helicopters, at the CHC event. “You can implement all the SMS systems you want, but without the right culture, you just won’t get there.”

In order to gain the trust of your customers, it’s important to communicate with your employees, and ensure buy-in of your organization’s goals. Making the necessary changes and reaffirming your corporate culture – it’s a rite of spring.

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