What happened to the spirit of Cooperation

 - September 15, 2006, 10:18 AM

Like many others, as a kid I loved going to the airport to watch airplanes. Unlike many other kids, I was lucky enough to live so close that I was able to be there every day. There were few fences back then, and I remember riding my bike with my friends onto the taxiways and into and around the hangars. We would leave our bikes at one end of the terminal and walk the entire length inside and often go to the rooftop observation deck and wave to all the flight crews. Sometimes the flight attendants would wave us down and treat us to a Coke.

By the time I was 10 years old I knew aviation people were special. Because of the time I spent in the hangar and the help the mechanics provided fixing my bike,
I learned that the nuts used on airplanes didn’t come loose. I laugh now knowing
I was using AN hardware before I knew what AN hardware was.

Years later when I went to work for a major airline in New York City there still was a feeling of “we are all in this together and we stick together.” We all helped each other out. We certainly tried to do anything to help our passengers, and that attitude extended to our fellow airline employees. I recall with pride a number of times that we helped others in need. I remember a supervisor sending me with a can of gas to rescue a porter who had run out of gas at 1 a.m. with no gas available for miles. Another time a crewmember’s car would not start and we got the car running so he could go home. I’m sure many of you have similar stories.

That cooperative attitude also extended to the jobs we performed. As a mechanic I loaded more than one aircraft baggage compartment just to get the aircraft out on time. This attitude permeated all types of aviation–general, corporate and commercial.

A Shifting Culture

I know that what I have just described as an aviation culture of caring cannot last forever. How long has it been since we have had young people hanging around our airports looking at the airplanes? It’s not easy to gain access to our airports, what with the fences and security personnel who view everyone as a potential terrorist. The rooftop observation decks are long gone. Jet bridges make it impossible to see or acknowledge the crews.

Security keeps us far away from the aircraft, so the “gee-whiz” factor that attracted me and many others to aviation is long gone. I often see a ground crew working to get a delayed flight out ASAP only to see others just one gate away waiting for an aircraft to arrive that is nowhere in sight.

Even in the technical areas there is diminishing cooperation among airlines. I would often say during my presentations how different aviation was from other modes of transportation. We have meetings to develop standards for a number of tasks required to move passengers or cargo. Taxis perform the same tasks of moving people and cargo, but when was the last time you heard of that industry meeting to develop standards of care?

We still cooperate on safety issues when required, such as when the FAA calls a meeting or a conference. However, even at that level it still takes far too long to reach agreement on meaningful issues.

The effects of that culture shift are now seen to be traveling from management down to the rank and file. It is no secret that we no longer attract the same level of employee that we have in the past. Formerly many of the non-flying jobs were filled by ex-military personnel and by people who just loved aviation. Now the military retains more of its people, who are trained in areas that take them away from the service side of commercial aviation.

And the problem is not limited to maintenance departments. Have you had a problem at the airport with a ticket recently? I have, and it is not a pleasant experience. I had a problem with my ticket, and I knew the answer I received from the gate agent was incorrect. Not wanting to cause a problem in front of several unhappy passengers, I moved away and found another agent who did what I had requested almost instantly.

One major airline has acknowledged this problem by placing direct phones to reservations near its customer-service counters so passengers can receive proper care. It seems the airlines cannot retain customer-service representatives long enough for them to really understand their systems.

Some of our FBOs are also experiencing the same human resources issues. One
area of the FBO business that concerns me is the “not my job” attitude. For example, while I was reviewing several winter-operations accidents I found statements from FBO personnel who had observed something like wing contamination on an aircraft about to depart but did not bring that fact to anyone’s attention. I’ve been around FBOs all my working life, and it certainly wasn’t like that in the past. Have we come to the point in aviation that many of our peers no longer care about anything except what they get paid? Without a caring culture providing a safety net, our accident rate will surely grow.