Now is the time to eliminate distractions

 - January 29, 2009, 10:28 AM

The economy is tanking, airlines are folding or merging, jobs are vanishing in droves, your 401(k) is a shadow of its former self, looking forward to retirement is a joke, and keeping your job–and your health–are your only hopes for 2009.

All these worries keep you from sleeping. Sure. But what are they doing to you while you’re supposed to be working?

Distractions in aviation can kill just as surely as complacency. And the two together are potentially even more lethal. No one is immune to complacency. The NTSB files are replete with accidents caused by inattention to routine checklists. Take pilot checklists, for example. Pilots simply forget to confirm the fuel on board and have to go back to the gate, make an unscheduled landing–or worse. Or mechanics do the same inspection over and over and find nothing, so they miss something when it is really there. Flight attendants are required to check emergency equipment that’s always there, and then it isn’t and they fail to notice.

I frequently speak to aviation professional groups about the dangers of becoming complacent. I emphasize that when you least expect it, a routine situation is no longer routine and complacency can cause you to overlook it. Sometimes the consequences are small and sometimes they are not. Awareness is key.

My concern is increasingly that the economic tsunami that is swamping aviation these days will naturally tend to distract its workforce. We in aviation understand change probably more than any other group in our economy because we are so accustomed to the ups and downs of a cyclical industry. Occasionally the industry experiences a complete 180 within a year, and last year certainly was a wild ride.

In spite of all this disruption, everyone who travels on aircraft expects us to perform to our previous high standards. Pilots, mechanics, flight attendants and dispatchers remain the rocks that make up the foundation on which aviation is built. They have been the steady hands that perform their required duties day in and day out. Some people who are not familiar with our processes might say it’s not difficult just to do your job. However, distractions have a way of creeping into every operation. For example, discussions within a corporate flight department about the possibility of closing or of a reduction in the number of aircraft can consume a large portion of employees’ thoughts and time.

The NTSB’s files contain many examples of flight crew distractions that have resulted in an accident or incident. For mechanics, distractions can originate from a number of sources. Shift work is a normal part of the job for a maintainer, and suffering from
the effects of fatigue only amplifies what would normally be a non-event. A cold breeze through an open hangar door would not normally be a concern, but if you are fatigued that chill could be a major distraction.

Hang Up and Focus!

Changes in the work environment have long been known to cause major distractions. Other distractions are visits from people not normally in your work area, phone calls and problems at home. Sometimes the task we are trying to accomplish can cause frustration if we are missing the proper tooling or parts.

We have worked with these and other distractions for years, and we have performed with professionalism, ensuring that our work meets aviation’s high standards. We must continue to perform to that standard even though there is much uncertainty. We must continue to support each other across the lines that separate our job functions.

Many will say that is more easily said than done. I’ve been there, too. But when
I was working on airplanes we had no cellphones! Calls were routed through the office and by remote activation would ring in the hangar incessantly until someone dropped what they were doing and picked up the call in the office. If whoever answered thought it was important enough, they came to get you. If not, you got a message and had to call back. That was bad enough, but your family knew the setup and kept calls to a minimum. And pilots and flight attendants in those days could get no calls while on duty.

Today there isn’t a hangar floor that I’ve been to that isn’t alive with the sound of cellphones ringing. And every ground handler, fueler, caterer and baggage handler has a cellphone. I’ve even heard cellphones going off in the cockpit during preflight preparations. And some misguided corporate communications departments–in the interest of instant communications–actually encourage cellphone use in aviation departments.

But at what cost all this instant chatter? Everyone knows that talking on cellphones while driving is a major distraction and a frequent cause of accidents. It’s not a stretch to think that talking on cellphones while at work can be a distraction and could significantly affect aviation safety. And distractions coupled with complacency are something I really fear. My suggestion is turn off the cellphones while on duty. Commit to aviation safety and leave the cellphones off until your break or the end of your duty day. Not every distraction can be eliminated, but this one surely can be.