Tony Kern, Ed.D

By Tony Kern, Ed.D
Chief Executive Officer, Convergent Performance

Posted on July 1, 2011
Jet plane landing

A mass casualty aviation mishap caused by a lack of professionalism has yet to strike; but it’s clear that tremors of unprofessionalism rumble just beneath the surface.

From the flight decks of major airlines, regional carriers and military aircraft, to emergency services and firefighting operations, failures of judgment and willful noncompliance continue to surface at an alarming rate. Most recently, we feel the tremors of unprofessional conduct coming from the Air Traffic Control world.

Over the past five years we have witnessed a steady erosion of public and political trust in our industry. Much of it is deserved, and some may simply be the result of greater media attention on a problem that has existed for decades. In either case, there is little doubt that if the challenge is not addressed, it is just a matter of time before the “big one” hits. When it does, it will severely impact the industry, something we cannot afford as we struggle to regain the lost ground from the recent recession.

A short list of seismic tremors over the past few years began with Comair Flight 191, which mistakenly attempted to take off on the wrong runway in Lexington, Kentucky, following multiple violations of the sterile cockpit rule. A series of fixed-wing and rotary-wing mishaps in the EMS industry then followed. Particularly egregious recent incidents include pilots unintentionally landing on a taxiway; and airline captains pulled drunk from their cockpits prior to takeoff. And then of course, there was Colgan Flight 3407—the biggest tremor to date—with its multiple failures of professionalism and 49 fatalities.

The military has not been immune. Two Navy helicopter aircrews dipped into Lake Tahoe for their Facebook page photos. Air Force instructor pilots overflew a stadium at less than 100 feet. Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz echoed his concern following an embarrassing series of incidents related to nuclear weapons transport. In a speech in October 2008, he said “We collectively need to back a little bit toward something called compliance. We must do the right thing, and do the right thing right. That’s as simple as it gets.”

In 2009, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt joined the refrain for renewed professionalism: “There is an extreme need to refocus on professionalism,” he said, citing the example of the crew who lost total situational awareness, overflying their destination with an airliner full of passengers. “I can’t regulate professionalism,” he lamented.

In May, 2010, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman took the unprecedented step of holding a National Forum on Professionalism in Aviation and Air Traffic Control Operations, an event I was honored to keynote. What Administrator Babbitt, Chairman Hersman and General Schwartz all point to is the key aspect of this challenge and any potential solution. It revolves around personal integrity—accepting responsibility for our actions combined with a willingness to hold ourselves and our peers accountable to professional standards. But these are not simple fixes. Words like integrity, responsibility and compliance are no longer standard issue in modern society.

One thing is certain
If we do not address this challenge from within, we can expect new restrictions and regulations. As British author G.K. Chesterton put it: “When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty; you do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” As our industry climbs back from the recent recession, we cannot afford a self-induced avalanche of “small laws” brought on by our own acts. We need only recall the details in HR 5900, signed into law last year, to see the future if we choose not to act.

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