Quick quiz: what’s The Next Big Thing in aviation safety right now? You know, the supposedly ground-breaking new idea that is being relentlessly promoted by the aviation intelligentsia? If you answered runway incursions or aeronautical decision making, you are hopelessly out of date.
The correct answer, and the current miracle cure for aviation, is Risk Management. Read enough magazines or attend an FAA safety seminar and you will undoubtedly be lectured about the values of the “PAVE checklist,” the “3P model” or the the “risk assessment matrix.” Through a simple mnemonic and a quick math problem, we’re told, you can virtually eliminate your chances of being in an accident.
I, for one, am tired of all this nonsense. Risk Management in its current form is a sham, a feel-good phrase that is popular precisely because its meaning is so elastic. Just like “I want better schools” and “I support a strong America,” everyone is in favor of it until it comes time to define what it actually means and how to do it.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not against risk management, per se. Whether you’re operating a nuclear power plant or a Cherokee, identifying potential hazards and weighing the pros and cons of different actions makes sense. But what is being presented as The Next Big Thing is in fact a basic concept that flight instructors have been teaching for decades (this very publication was talking about it in the 1950s). It’s an attempt to sensationalize the obvious.
As you would expect, a cottage industry of safety entrepreneurs has sprung up to take advantage of the trend. And they’re promoting a list of serious-sounding proposals, complete with fancy names. Most prominently, there is the campaign for Safety Management Systems (SMS). This formalized process attempts to identify and manage risks from the top down, but succeeds mostly at creating a pile of paperwork. One important element of these SMS programs is the Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT), which is unfortunately a safety equation, not a place to have a party.
Through the use of tools like the FRAT, the Risk Management experts are trying to fundamentally change how pilots think about pre-flight planning, weather briefings and a whole lot more. It’s an attempt to turn the thoughtful, deliberate act of aeronautical decision making into a mathematical formula–and remove the human brain from the process.
Call it the triumph of the math majors over the history majors, or the left brain over the right brain. No matter what the reason, the trend toward more math and less “gut feel” is changing plenty of fields besides aviation. Take finance: whereas once traders decided to move based on market news and a sense of timing, they now make trades based largely on what their algorithms say.
The FRAT is this mentality applied to aviation. The document attempts to assess a variety of potential hazards for each flight, from pilot currency to weather to airport conditions. No bad thing, but as usual the devil is in the details. A model document from the FAA suggests scoring each line, usually from 1 to 5. For example, a single pilot flight warrants a risk value of 5. That may be the case if you are flying a jet and you usually fly as a crew. But what if you’re in a 172 and all of your time is single pilot? Do you ignore the supposed risk or change the risk value? Either way is a slippery slope. In essence, you get to both make up the test and grade the test.
The obvious problem with this simplistic matrix is that risk, especially in aviation, is a frustratingly complicated and ever-changing thing. Identifying hazards and mitigating risk takes intuition, experience and an appetite for ruthless self-criticism. A formula or a checklist can’t possibly encapsulate all of the factors that add risk. If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks at Lehman Brothers how their sophisticated risk model worked out when the credit crisis hit.
But tools like FRAT are worse than just unhelpful. I think they also take some of the fun and challenge out of flying. Managing risks is what flying (and life, for that matter) is all about; it’s what makes being a pilot so rewarding. Replacing that with a formula not only oversimplifies things, it makes a fun experience just another box to check. This is not to mention the serious turn-off this is for a prospective pilot. Can you imagine sitting down with a brand new student to go over a FRAT?
Maybe there’s an argument to be made that an airline needs an SMS, as a way to standardize decision-making and avoid a rogue pilot jeopardizing the company. But that’s not the case for a Cirrus owner, where decision-making is much more personal and the flight department is one person. One size does not fit all when it comes to safety, and even the FAA recognizes this. The FARs give Part 91 operators more leeway with equipment failures, weather minima and maintenance; we should recognize that same distinction when it comes to SMSs.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t consider the risks before a flight. And I’m also not advocating we ignore risk management during primary training. But the idea that some lengthy matrix or mnemonic can dramatically improve safety is naive. Let’s do the harder–but much more important–job of teaching real world decision-making, every time we fly.