News Safety

Forecast of Aviation Safety in Times of COVID-19

Written by Sergio Romero

Management could not collapse in organizations like this. That thinking was next to me as I was driving to my office pretty much far from home last year. Dry leaves all over the road were telling me I was about to live a nice summer with my wife and kids. In the meanwhile, a virus was growing each and every day in Asia, but all of us thought it was another kind of ‘flu and that’s it. I must confess I was about to make a complete Management of Change exercise, but as data was not available at that time, I felt I was not able to put this into the airline’s safety agenda for January last year.

Why I was asking myself management could not collapse in organizations like this? It was tough asking that, but easy to understand at the same time. Whenever we talk about safety, we need to deal with a management system. Otherwise, we would not be able to achieve or improve something if it does not exist.

Just some days ago, a colleague from a foreign country called me in desperate mode for help. He received an SMS inspection confirmation from the CAA. The voice was not aligned only with concern but with despair, anxiety and misery. Yes, Sergio, I agreed scheduled audits needed to be performed last year, but you know money was short and I did not do anything on SMS. Indeed, the CAA did not visit me last year for the base inspection. That’s when I thought it’s nonsense making something on SMS!

What’s in there within some organizations that one must not think it comes out of the blue? Latent conditions management, safety culture, monitoring, planning, risk management and policy/objectives control are issues or even concerns in some organizations? Management review as well? And last but not least safety accountability? Professor James Reason tells us that “errors are seen as consequences rather than causes, having their origins not so much in the perversity of human nature as in ‘upstream’ systemic factors.” I’d rather link this to a quote from Skybrary that states “… such rules and processes may not always be followed, particularly if people in the organization believe that, for example, ‘moving traffic’ is the real over-riding priority, even if risks are occasionally taken. Where would people get such an idea? The answer, ultimately is from their peers, but more so their superiors, including the person at the helm of an organization, namely the CEO.” Organizations must take it seriously on the balance between profits and ethics-based safety.

Related to this above, Professor Frank Knight established a difference between risk and uncertainty. Pursuant to Knight’s ideas, when we talk about risk, we are dealing with data and the relevant decisions to make. On the contrary, when we talk about uncertainty, we are dealing with risk in which the probability of its occurrence is not calculable, such as certain elements of production cost that cannot be accurately calculated. The incalculable risks are represented by ‘uncertainty’. The entrepreneur has to make uncertainty-based decisions. How are profits earned? As long as he takes right decisions on the amount of production costs. It means the shortest the production costs, the largest the profits, for some decision makers. At what cost? At what time range? High cost, and just immediately for time’s sake!

After reading that above, I turned another’s book page in my mind. What does ICAO tell us about Safety Promotion? They deem such promotion comprises of encouragement, safety objectives support, and behavior.

Regarding the encouragement, we need to address the positive safety culture issue. For obvious reasons, we need to know what does a positive safety culture mean, including what are the components of such safety culture? At least, to be sure we are running, or in the process of achieving a positive safety culture. Then, what about the support to achieve an organization’s objectives? With that in mind in the PDCA cycle, it will easier to allot resources for the decision making when achieving objectives, including the relevant activities. Ultimately, the behavior both in personal and organizational levels to supplement the organization’s policies, procedures and processes. To complement all of this, it must be said a safety culture does not rise overnight, as ICAO’s Doc. 9859 states: “A positive safety culture relies on a high degree of trust and respect between personnel and management. Time and effort are needed to build a positive safety culture, which can be easily damaged by management decisions and actions, or inactions. Continuous effort and reinforcement are needed. Effective safety management empowers a positive safety culture and a positive safety culture empowers effective safety management.”

But what are the components of a Positive Safety Culture then? The answer could be found in ICAO’s Annex 19. It says these components are: (i) Personal and Organizational Commitment, (ii) Sharing Safety Information, and (iii) Safety Reporting Encouragement. What are we talking about here? We are facing unavoidable issues such as commitment, adaptability, awareness, behavior with respect to safety, as well as information sharing (at the right amount and time) and trust.

My cell phone rang furiously. It was my colleague again. I need your help, Sergio, he told me. After plenty of my statements on SMS and Management, I reminded telling him in these times of COVID (and other times too), safety should be performed on a risk-based budget. COVID and the absence of CAA visits did not mean you forget your SMS. You needed to run the SMS on idle, not to shut the SMS engine down!

If organizations are able and willing to do all of these above, management could hardly collapse and this will mean not only the difference between failure and success, but the difference between sound perennial and profitable and safe organizations. Otherwise, deaths are obviously foreseen!


[1] Air safety specialist for more than fifteen years. Lecturer and instructor in both Spanish and English in Safety, Quality Improvements, Human Factors and Teaching Techniques. Quality / SMS Manager with experience in Peru and abroad. Three decades of experience in the Peruvian aviation industry, which includes 121/135 airlines, AMOs and Aerodromes, both for SMS and AVSEC. SMS consultant in civil aviation schools and, currently, SMS consultant for a Pilot’s School.

About the author

Sergio Romero