Torqued: Overcoming obstacles to effective communications

 - January 29, 2007, 8:59 AM

Last month I started a discussion about what I have come to recognize as a serious disconnect between pilots and mechanics, each of whom performs critical tasks necessary to prepare an aircraft for safe flight. For lack of a better term, I call this phenomenon negative culture. Although the phenomenon exists in every industry, in few industries does it carry consequences as severe as those in aviation.

The FARs require the pilot-in-command to write all mechanical irregularities that occur during flight in the maintenance log of the airplane at the end of that flight. Once a pilot makes an entry in the logbook, maintenance personnel must take some action in response to the discrepancies recorded and must note this response in the airplane logbook. The FARs specify exactly what information maintenance crews are required to record and in how much detail.

Before a flight, a pilot is required to review the aircraft logbook to ensure that
the maintenance crew has addressed adequately all discrepancies noted by the previous flight crews.

While the FARs specify exactly what information maintenance personnel must record, they leave to the pilot’s discretion what details the pilot must include in the logbook discrepancy write-up, which has led to a wide variety in the quality and quantity of information contained in such write-ups. Some pilots provide great detail in their entries while others keep them as brief as possible. Sometimes this creates a challenge for maintenance personnel to figure out just what the pilot was reporting.

Probably more than a few people reading this are thinking, ‘We know that, but where is this going?’ Well, the point I want to discuss here is the one that we have all heard over and over–communications. Despite the technology at our disposal, we continue to have a great deal of difficulty communicating with each other. Sometimes this difficulty shows up between cockpit crewmembers, but most often it shows up between cockpit crewmembers and members of other departments, such as the maintenance department.

This communication disconnect can lead to tension between pilots and mechanics. Once this animosity starts, the path to mistrust and even contempt is a short one. In fact, research conducted about five years ago identified this mistrust as a problem area. Dr. Gary Eiff of Purdue University, in 1997 noted that he was “struck by the frequency and intensity of interpersonal conflicts that seemed to pervade the
work environment” of these two groups. He also noted, “These conflicts represented a formidable barrier to effective teamwork and communication and were viewed as major influences on error propagation and operational safety.”

We all realize the importance of communication to maintaining an aircraft in airworthy condition but we all fall short when it comes to actually communicating effectively.

What are the differences between pilots and maintenance personnel that can create such problems? To begin with, we all respond to what we believe is important. In the workplace we also respond to how we are evaluated for job performance.

As a result, each person involved in flight operations looks at the same problem differently. When a pilot talks to maintenance he is talking about problems. When a mechanic talks he is thinking and talking about solutions. When an engineer talks he is thinking and talking about data. When management talks it is talking about money. To deal effectively with these different focuses, each employee must consider the other’s point of view. Often this is difficult to accomplish with the time constraints the system places upon each of us, but somehow we must find the time because communication between departments is much too important to continue
in the direction it has been going.

Specifically, the problems include the varied assumptions and expectations held by pilots, dispatchers, maintenance technicians, engineers and management. Communication problems maintenance crews encounter include reluctance by pilots to provide sufficient information to maintenance crews; pilots not articulating problems in logbook write-ups; and the fact that the pilots are not available to the maintenance technician to answer questions. Pilots are knowledgeable, and they may have useful input for the maintenance technician to identify or troubleshoot a problem. Maintenance technicians, in turn, need to be open and responsive to this input.

In the end there needs to be a mutual respect among pilots, mechanics, dispatchers, engineers and managers for the skills, abilities and knowledge of the others and for the responsibility of each individual to contribute equally to the safe and successful execution of every flight. In aviation there can be no other way.