Now that the Italian investigation into a scary Ryanair trip to Rome four years ago has been published, airlines have an official object lesson in why pilots need skillful management. And Ryanair appears to have been first to take the embedded messages on board.

But the incident in 2005 was serious, and it was not the only one of its type Ryanair had suffered. At the time Ryanair had an adversarial relationship with its pilot workforce, and the captain of the Boeing 737-800 that diverted from Rome Ciampino via Fiumicino to Pescara showed symptoms of that relationship. He had failed to tell the operations department that his young son had just died and that he did not feel fit to fly, as he felt insecure in his job and had no faith that this would be seen as a valid reason for being excused duty.

Despite his emotional state, the captain would probably have had an uneventful flight from Düsseldorf that day if the weather at his destination had not been challenging. The area around Rome was dotted with thunderstorms, and the approach entailed dodging them. Decisions had to be made because the situation was changing rapidly in other ways too, like being given a late change of runway from 15 to 33. It became clear the captain was, on that day, not fully capable of making decisions and flying the aircraft at the same time. The relatively inexperienced co-pilot saved him from his own misjudgements, and the 737 diverted to Pescara.

Even now industrial relations at Ryanair could scarcely be described as cuddly, but as far as the pilots are concerned they have improved considerably. Soon after the Ciampino incident, the company clarified its policy about flying in the wake of traumatic personal events, but it took a while longer and another interesting incident for the strained atmosphere to calm down.

A pilot's job is particularly safety critical. Their personal performance matters, not just in the sense they should be unlikely to make mistakes, but because they are also, as Capt Don Maurino at the International Civil Aviation Organisation says, "the system's goalkeepers". Occasionally they have to cope with mistakes made by maintenance people, the operations department, or corporate management.

Flightcrew do more than prevent accidents. They can manage their airline's most expensive assets - and the customers - either skillfully and efficiently, or indifferently, in direct proportion to how well they themselves are managed.

Source: Flight International