Distractions From the Back
The lead passenger on your flight to Atlanta walks up to the cockpit while enroute to Chicago and asks how the weather looks. He wants an update from his Weather Channel briefing earlier in the morning. Having just received an AFIS report, you respond that current conditions indicate that you will be shooting an instrument approach into Midway. He asks if you think you will be able to land and you respond that the chances are very good, given the current forecast. He then emphasizes how important this meeting is to the company and that they really need to land on time at the destination airport
Prior to takeoff, one of your passengers mentions that he is prone to motion sickness and forgot to take the medication that has been prescribed for him. How many times have you been asked at a critical phase of flight if something could be fixed or if something could be arranged or another fact, important to the questioner, but distracting to you. We all deal with standard forms of distraction every day. Aircraft mechanical discrepancies, destination weather, onboard entertainment systems not operating properly are operational forms of distraction.
There have been some noteworthy incidents within our community during the past several years; Accidents, that have been caused because of lack of attention to detail and carelessness of the fight crew. When the pilots become focused on factors other than the functional operation of the aircraft, items on a checklist may be skipped. The tragic accident in Aspen last year is an example of a distraction becoming a part of the series of events leading up to a tragedy. A late departure for a destination that is considered to be a day only airport with a passenger load anxious to make a scheduled event, was certainly not the cause of the accident, but certainly had to be a contributing factor.
Pilots are often distracted before a flight even begins by one or more late arriving passengers. This can especially be disconcerting when there are slots involved. All the hard work that is involved in planning a trip to airports or through airspace that require reservations, can go awry when you miss a slot time because a passenger is not there at the scheduled time. This can set the tone for a “hurry up” pace in the cockpit. As we all know from experience, whenever the pace quickens beyond the normal flow, often something can be overlooked. Veteran pilots will all tell you that if you feel like things are going too fast, they probably are. Someone up front needs to verbally indicate that they are uncomfortable with the pace.
Drew Callan, Boston Jet Search, who for the past twenty years of consulting with numerous Fortune 100 companies and many high net worth individuals, observed, when asked how he viewed the subject, “ Distractions from the back are rarely heard by the flight crew, but often felt.” What Drew is eluding to a long established fact that once the boss puts something in the heads of subordinates, regardless of their station within the organization, it does make a difference in their decision making process. Especially if the outcome is being scrutinized directly by the CEO who will be making a judgment, implied or unintended, of the person in charge of that outcome.
Failure to properly deice due to timing or the exorbitant cost of modern deicing fluids; failure to pay attention to the appropriate loading of passengers and cargo in combination with fuel considerations, tinkering, etc., can be the result of distractions caused by informal company policies. Distractions can come at any time and from any direction. Within your department has anyone asked whether the policies and procedures you have in your departmental manual are setting your flight crews up for possible distractions at the wrong time during a flight? If you have a minimum runway requirement in your operations manual and a clear understanding throughout your organization that this is an absolute minimum, then you should not have passengers pressuring you captains to land an airport that is less that the stated minimum.
Jimmy Hayes, Executive Vice President of Finance for Cox Communications, emphasized the need to establish a set of guidelines that make passengers aware of the importance of the go-no-go decision being in the hands of the flight crew. “Our operations manual stresses the supportive nature of our Chairman’s commitment to safety. Our Captains have the final say in all matters relating to the safe conduct of a flight. While customer service is always in the forefront, critical decisions, relating to safety are made without influence from the back of the aircraft.”
One tried and true method of delaying distractions is to adopt a 10,000 foot rule. Below 10,000 feet during departure or arrival, the cockpit conversation is limited to checklist and appropriate departure and arrival briefings.
All the great work accomplished by The Flight Safety Foundation in the 80’s and 90’s with CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) is a great example of how our collective consciousness was raised by pointing out the many variables that combined, could lead up to a possible accident. Cockpit distractions whether they began as a casual hint to the Captain prior to engine start, while enroute, a matter of informal policy or any other unintended way, can become a factor at a critical time during a flight. Just because something is subtle and lying in the back of the minds of the flight crew doesn’t mean that it can’t be a very dangerous thing.
While we can’t eliminate distractions during the normal evolution of any particular flight, we can work to minimize them by creating a solid base of operational understanding within the department and the ranks of senior management, your customers. Another very important way to minimize the effect on flight crews of distractions, is to emphasize the fact that they need to be able to recognize the distraction, discuss the fact that it happened and to put it in its proper place with all of the other cockpit tasks that are being accomplished at the time. A clear understanding by all crewmembers as well as senior management that knowledge of the limitations of the operational use of the business aircraft is critical to the safe conduct of each flight.