How avoidable aviation accidents have taught us the value of open communication.

On the evening of December 28th 1978, the crew of a United Airlines Flight 173 were approaching Portland International Airport for what should have been a standard landing. But as they lowered the landing gear, they heard a loud thumping noise throughout the plane. This, coupled with the fact that the light indicating the landing gear had locked into position was not lit up, caused them some concern. The captain had to make a call. And decided that they would put the aircraft into a holding flight pattern while they investigated the problem. One hour later the aircraft crash landed in a wooded suburb of Portland, and 2 crew members and 8 passengers lost their lives.

But what went wrong? Once the Captain decided to postpone landing to investigate the landing gear problem, all attention was focussed there, and no one was keeping an eye on their fuel gauge. While the decision to delay landing until it was safe was completely sound, the crash eventually occurred due to fuel exhaustion. So what could your business learn from this tragic accident?

Fault Is Not A One Way Street

While it might be easy to criticise the captain for taking his eye off the ball, we should instead look into the deeper lesson here about the way team communicate. On investigating the United 173 disaster, The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that: “the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the captain to monitor properly the aircraft’s fuel state and to properly respond to the low fuel state and the crewmember’s advisories regarding fuel state. Contributing to the accident was the failure of the other two flight crewmembers to fully comprehend the criticality of the fuel state or to successfully communicate their concern to the captain”. In other words, while the captain should have taken action to combat the low fuel situation, he should not be held entirely responsible. His crew members should also have been communicating with him and ensuring he was fully aware of the fuel situation. Which brings us nicely onto our next point.

Critical Communications

Let’s take a look at another air-based disaster. On January 13th 1982, the Air Florida Flight 90 crashed on take off from Washington National Airport. The flight take off and taxi time had been heavily delayed, causing fatal amounts of ice to build up on the wings of the aircraft. During preparations for take off the First Office became increasingly concerned, but didn’t feel confident in raise the issue in an authoritative way. Instead, he said to the captain:

“Look how the ice is just hanging on this, back, back there, see that?”

“See all those icicles on the back there and everything?”

“Boy, this is a losing battle here trying to de-ice those things. It (gives) you a false sense of security, that’s all it does.”

If you heard that, would you think that your First Officer had genuine concerns about the safety of take off? Less than one minute into the flight, the underpowered, overladen aircraft crashed into a bridge over the Potomac River. Injuries and casualties were high. Sadly, this tragic situation is one we are all familiar with. In the workplace, the boss’ authority is sacrosanct, and criticism flows down the chain of command, never up. Raising an issue or concern with the boss is something we often approach in the same tentative manner as the First Officer of Flight 90.

Just over half of all air crashes are the result of human error, many involving highly experienced pilots making basic errors. The staggering number of incidents citing poor communication as a contributing factor to accidents prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to look to psychologists for answers. Now we have a programme called ‘Crew Resource Management’, which is a set of training procedures to improve interpersonal communication, leadership and decision making in the cock pit. The idea behind the programme is to foster a less authoritarian culture in the cock pit, while still maintaining the command hierarchy by encouraging co-pilots to respectfully question their Captain if they feel there is an error.

But What Can Your Business Learn?

It might seem like we are a bit obsessed with the aviation industry in this post, but that’s because it’s the easiest way to see how simple communication issues can lead to much larger and disastrous problems. The most obvious takeaway from the psychological study of aircrews is that fostering a culture of open communications will lead to better decision making and fewer mistakes. By treating subordinates respectfully, encouraging their input and actually listening to it, more errors will be detected quickly and resolved before they can become fatal. The air crash examples we have given show a clear pattern: that even in life and death situations, raising concerns with your boss is not always done in a direct manner.

Human beings by nature make a lot of mistakes, while at the same time embarrassing and stigmatising those who make them. By cultivating a culture of open communication in your workplace, mistakes can be pointed out and averted without fear of embarrassment or shame, and before they can escalate further. The aviation industry was forced to learn these valuable lessons the hard way in the late 1970’s, but other businesses have been much slower to adapt. Instead, some businesses are still headed by the archetypal leader, the untouchable macho deity who rules from the top down. But this figure is missing out on one of the biggest assets in business and in personal growth – access to criticism, and learning from mistakes.