Torqued: Crews need same protection as passengers

 - July 26, 2007, 11:36 AM

It seems every aviation-related publication I have read for almost a year has included an article about last September’s tragic midair in Brazil. The event certainly warrants widespread attention. However, the discussion so far has not dug deeply enough into the larger issue of what happens to the flight crew in the event of an accident, especially in a country where an accident investigation is a criminal investigation.

Long before I became an NTSB member, there was an effort under way to establish independent accident investigation organizations in countries around the world. Many countries treat any loss of life as a crime, and any investigation is conducted by the judicial system, usually headed by a judge who likely has never been involved with any aviation matters. Authorities in Britain, France, the U.S. and a few other western countries are trying to convince other nations to establish a process of independent investigations to uncover and understand the causes of any accidents occurring in their countries without a criminal investigation. This has proved a difficult task; there have been some successes, but it has been a really slow process.

It is time for our industry to revisit the procedures we have in the emergency response plans and revise them to fit today’s realities. We need to acknowledge that these procedures must include provisions for the flight crew as well as for the people in the cabin.

For more than a year I have been working with a number of experts who understand what is required to provide a much higher level of protection for the passengers and crew of an aircraft as they travel around the world. I have developed a new appreciation of what is involved in providing safe and secure transportation. Many services have been available to and provided for the corporate executives who are the passengers on our aircraft. Unfortunately, they have not been extended to the flight crew.

For the past few months I have been thinking about the security issues surrounding corporate operations outside the U.S., and I have come to realize how much they need to be improved. We are fooling ourselves by thinking that many of our flight departments have a meaningful program in place to deal with the threats we face. Our governments have been advising the public that the threat from terrorist groups is increasing.

Terrorist groups have stated openly their desire to disrupt the economies of the U.S. and other western nations. We have seen repeat attempts in the UK to kill and injure civilians. In the U.S. we have been fortunate that such attempts have not been successful, but it is clear that the bad guys will continue to try. Add to this the fact that the average person in the U.S. has become complacent about security issues; many actually complain about the inconvenience caused by the procedures put in place by security professionals.

I see this same complacency among aviation professionals as well. This stems partly from our living in a closed environment, with much of the corporate world not understanding how we accomplish the task of flying aircraft around the world, arranging food, fuel, lodging, ground handling and so on with relatively few hassles.

Inter-department Cooperation
Flight departments need to educate corporate security about aviation operations and even integrate security into the department. The vast majority of security programs have a strong focus on asset protection and executive protection, leaving the flight department to the aviation professionals who understand aviation. The problem, as I see it, is that aviation professionals do not have the knowledge to fully perform the job as security director for international operations.

A number of flight departments are overseen by corporate security, and as a result their procedures for security assessments are extremely robust. A solid security department clearly has more resources for information collection than a flight department. It has available any number of highly rated firms that provide extremely accurate information, available only to security professionals, about threats anywhere in the world.

Stand-alone flight departments do not use these kinds of specialist, but there are some flight departments positioned within the corporate security department that now have the resources to upgrade their security assessments. Additionally, these are the flight operations that seem to be quickest to pull the flight crew under the same umbrella that protects the executives in the cabin.

It is clear that improving the working relationship between the flight department and corporate security made these improvements possible. We on the flight side must reach out to corporate security and include them in our planning. Remember: most security directors are not familiar with aviation, so we must be educators as well as facilitators if we expect to be cared for in a manner similar to our passengers.