Effective communications for flight and maintenance crews

 - February 8, 2007, 4:29 AM

For some time I have been aware of and exposed to a changing culture at the major airlines, and it holds lessons for corporate aviation.

What I am talking about is the growing division among employees who perform the different functions that are required to put a passenger or cargo aircraft in flight. During my 30-plus years working for the airlines I watched this negative culture grow in intensity and spread throughout the organization. While this type of division occurs in every industry and every company, in few industries does it carry consequences as severe as those in aviation.

Take a minute to contemplate what the successful completion of a commercial flight entails, and all the people and job functions that task embraces. The burden of ensuring that an aircraft is ready for flight is placed on the captain, who in most organizations can rely on others to complete certain tasks.  The captain is responsible for only a limited portion of what those people have done.

For example, the captain of an aircraft with a T tail is not required to go on top of the tail to check how well the snow or ice was removed. This delegation of responsibility is allowed because the company has written procedures that require the person performing the deicing to be trained in how to deice, and also to be fully conversant with the company manual outlining the proper deicing procedures.

The same can be said for maintenance. Although the flight crew and the maintenance personnel have a tight bond in ensuring the aircraft is airworthy, it is a rare person who really understands both of these skills.

Flight crews have a better understanding of the operating characteristics of the aircraft’s systems. On the other hand, a mechanic will possess a more detailed understanding of the aircraft systems’  components and how they interrelate to produce the desired outcome. Although both the flight crew and the maintenance crews share the safety and legal responsibility for airworthiness, the specialized knowledge that each crew possesses plays an important role in ensuring that the aircraft ultimately is airworthy. The way this is accomplished is through good communications.

While I was an NTSB member I worked with some Purdue University students and professors studying the communication between flight crews and maintenance personnel. One of the things I remember well is that what is important is not just the sharing of information but the sharing of information in a way that leads to the effective  resolution of the problem.

One of the challenges flight crews face in ensuring that mechanics understand the information they are trying to convey is the different jargon that exists within different job groups in aviation. For example, the average person often has a difficult time understanding the fast and unfamiliar communication terminology that bounces between a flight crew and an air traffic controller. The same goes for some of the communication between the flight crew and the cabin crew. Over the past 20 years or so there has been considerable research and application of proven techniques to improve the effectiveness of communication between these groups.

But the same is not true for communications between flight crews and maintenance crews. The ways we communicate today are not very different from those in place when I got started in aviation 40-plus years ago.

We have seen some effort to automate the reporting process through the use of the Acars communication network. This has helped in some areas, but when there is a serious problem nothing replaces good, effective face-to-face communications in which the problem can be discussed repeatedly until it is fully understood. Another improvement in use today by the airlines is the addition of maintenance controllers, who often help flight crews understand the problem they are experiencing and can work with them to troubleshoot malfunctions while they are still in the air.

However, I need to make a strong point here: it is the primary responsibility of the flight crew to fly the aircraft and not to troubleshoot problems for the maintenance department.

Some who are reading this will take exception to this line of thought, but I would ask them to think back to the MD-88 that crashed off the California coast a few years ago while experiencing problems with a sticking/jammed horizontal stabilizer. During this flight the crew attempted to troubleshoot and correct the problem, with the help of maintenance control, while passing several suitable airports where they could have landed. Eventually the stabilizer attachment mechanism failed and all was lost.   
My plea to all flight crews is first to fly the aircraft and limit in-flight troubleshooting. We can solve the problems on the ground.

Today’s flight schedules often make it difficult for pilots and mechanics at airlines to have direct contact with each other, and the same often holds true in corporate aviation departments too. Some years ago I worked with a corporate operation that flew an airline-style schedule among its many plants around the country. This operator recognized the disconnects and worked to develop a training program and company policies to deal with them. I saw these changes firsthand and understand just how much they improved that operation. More on this next month.