Having been a professional pilot for 23 years now, I’m sure that most of you long enough in the airline industry will agree with me: rules, regulations and procedures in our job are only ever increasing.
Many colleagues will recognise the weekly torrent of company notes, effortlessly sent to you by digital means.
Certainly, some events like the 9/11 terror attacks, accidents where human error was involved, and now the Covid-19 pandemic merit additional regulation.
But from my own experience, I reckon that in those 23 years, the number of rules, regulations and procedures governing my job has easily doubled.
That doubling has taken place despite the fact that we are flying aircraft that have hardly evolved, on operations that haven’t changed all that much either.
That leads you to ask several questions. Is this mountain of rules justified? Do they add value? Looking at safety statistics, as far as Western countries are concerned, airline transport was safe 20 years ago and still is today.
If that’s the case, do we need more regulation? I believe extra rules aren’t always the answer and can be counterproductive. Don’t get me wrong, rules are a necessity, but there is a limit to their effectiveness.
Rules are born from experience, but also from imagination. Things can go wrong. We create rules to avoid a repeat. We also try to imagine what could go wrong, inventing rules that will hopefully avoid undesired events.
We humans understandably try to create a zero-risk environment. We don’t like risk. In the same way, aviation authorities and airline companies try to control every imaginable scenario, whether a normal or a non-normal situation, to create their own zero-risk paradise.
An ever-expanding rule book, especially for us as pilots, is considered the price we have to pay; the logical path to heaven. Consumers have the same attitude, always eager to point out things that didn’t match up to the perfect experience. The press is on a constant hunt looking for when things become messy.
We have to accept we will never live in a zero-risk world – even with unlimited rules. We should understand that human beings are not computer programs: you can’t just drop in another line of code to fine-tune them.
Instead, rules should provide a framework to help us cope with the complexities of everyday operations up to full-scale emergencies. But it is just that: a framework, not an endless user’s guide the human memory will struggle with.
Call me cynical, but it is very convenient for the authorities and airline management to transfer all responsibility to the flightcrew for not doing exactly as described in book three, chapter 12, paragraph 21, subsection b.
Let’s fix the balance. Get rid of the fat that has crept in our rules and procedures. Make them healthy again, designed to help us pilots. Have faith in human beings and their cognitive abilities.
After all that’s what we human beings are good at: we can observe, analyse, act and adapt in an ever changing environment. This attitude is far more efficient than endlessly asking what the book says.
It is a more satisfying and motivating working environment too. Pilots should be trained this way too. Make them resilient. Don’t turn them into automatons, programmed to simply execute a set of rules. Train them to take healthy decisions, to cope with the complexities of daily operations, to get on top of hairy situations. The books are important, but they are a starting point. Don’t think they will always give the answers. Over reliance on them can be dangerous too, giving a false feeling of full control.
Now that aviation is in this unprecedented crisis, I fear we are yet to experience another significant expansion in rulemaking. Faced with the coronavirus, every country seems to be coming up with its own plan to make flying safe again from a medical point of view. Airlines in overdrive for another round of extra measures. As we all know from the past, new rules are born very easily but soon become etched in stone. Even when the crisis is over, we consider them ‘indispensable’ without stopping to think why.
Please don’t cripple us with yet more regulation.
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