Commercial pressure in aviation is a concept that most pilots are familiar with, especially in this day and age. Unfortunately, it’s still a massive problem in the aviation industry, and has even caused the UK CAA to publish this safety notice featuring commercial pressure.
To this day, lots of accidents are still being linked to the fact pilots (or engineers) felt pressure to ‘get the job done’ without being confident they had the required variables to do so.
Let’s talk about what it is, how we can recognise it, and most importantly: what can we do about it?
- What is Commercial Pressure in Aviation?
- How to recognise the influence of Commercial Pressure?
- What are the biggest threats caused by Commercial Pressure?
- What can companies and pilots do to avoid unsafe situations due to commercial pressure?
- What pilots can do
- What operators can do
What is Commercial Pressure in Aviation?
Commercial pressure by itself is not exclusive to the aviation industry. It is present in most professional industries. The main reason it’s such an infamous topic in aviation, is because it can have serious consequences in a relatively short timeframe.
So what is it? Well, there’s no official ICAO definition, but for the scope of this article, let’s define it as:
“The perceived or real pressure to satisfy customers or achieve profitability, regardless of safety implications.”
This by itself does not necessarily mean it has automatically a bad outcome. Let’s say a helicopter pilot feels pressure to depart, but the external circumstances are such that it’s safe to do so anyway, the actual outcome might be absolutely fine.
The point here is though, that despite the good outcome, there’s still a problem. A problem that unfortunately will often only come to light once things spiral out of control (sometimes literally..).
The real problems are the days where that same pressure is present, but now the weather is crap, the pilot is not current, or there’s an airworthiness issue with the helicopter. The question is, will this pilot still depart?
Unfortunately history suggests he could still depart or push on despite worsening conditions. However, this depends on his personality, training, company SOP’s, culture, and the amount of commercial pressure the pilot is experiencing.
The textbook example is this AW139 crash in the UK, which demonstrates how commercial pressure and lack of crew training can cause direct and latent threats.
So how can we recognise commercial pressure, and how can we see if we’re being influenced by it, to the point where the operation can become unsafe? Let’s have a look!
How to recognise the influence of Commercial Pressure?
Just as the UK CAA notice states, there is an elevated risk for operations where pilots interact with owners or passengers directly, such as private jets and rotary aircraft.
This risk increases even further if pilots are paid directly by whoever owns the plane as well.
Luckily it’s still very common in today’s industry to have pilots that are employed by a company, which then serves a client. This provides a layer of protection from direct pressures from clients.
The problem is of course, that even entire companies can be pressured by clients, which they then could place completely upon the pilots.
So what sort of pressures are we talking about and what does the UK CAA have to say about it? Well, it mainly looks like this:
- Pressure originating directly from passengers
- Perceived pressure by pilots due to matters of urgency (important events, medical emergencies, high status clients)
- Pressure from various company HQ departments
- Pilot awareness of commercial needs for the company, due to difficult financial situations
- Pilot awareness of reputational needs for the company
Any of these are not limited to the industries talked about above. It could happen in all sorts of aviation industries such as the airlines, HEMS, SAR, or Firefighting.
Generally speaking, the more layers are inbetween pilots and clients, the lower the risk factor for passenger induced commercial pressure.
The problem with industries such as SAR, HEMS, or firefighting, could be the realisation that cancelling the mission might have severe consequences for whoever needed the service in the first place.
You could argue that some of these pressure are ‘self induced’. The problem is that there’s a very thin line that can get crossed to turn ‘self induced’ into ‘textbook commercial pressure’. More on this later, let’s talk about the actual threats first.
What are the biggest threats caused by Commercial Pressure?
These types of pressures can lead to various types of poor decision making. In general, history suggests these are the main ways decision making can be compromised:
- Flight crew or operational crew accepting or continuing flights into a destination with marginal or unacceptable conditions, or restricted performance criteria.
- Flight crew continuing an unstable or rushed approach
- Crew operating outside their Flight Time Limitations.
- Flight crew departing with unserviceable equipment or without adhering to the Minimum Equipment List
- Lack of reporting of safety incidents or potential safety hazards
What about the eventual consequences? Well, we’ve seen quite a few of those unfortunately in the last few decades, and we discussed why helicopters crash in our previous article.
From pilots taking off while in clearly unsuitable weather (and even fog), texting in flight, refusing to divert, pushing on into unsuitable landing sites, and inadvertently entering Degraded Visual Environments and eventually unplanned IMC. This can also happen when there is a lot of cockpit gradient and the captain also happens to be a senior manager within the company.
What can companies and pilots do to avoid unsafe situations due to commercial pressure?
So the million dollar question here is: “What can we do about it?”
The answers unfortunately are (as always) easier said than done.
Let’s break it up by what we can do as pilots, and what operators can do to improve these types of threats.
What pilots can do
For pilots it comes down to setting boundaries. Awareness is obviously a requirement to see if you’re doing things you would normally not do. The CAA states the following steps to take:
- Understand and fulfil your own responsibilities based on the regulations, OPS manual, aircraft flight manual, and local procedures
- Involve the operational department (if there is one) in the decision making process
- Brief passengers, owners, ground crew, and managers of the limitations and importance of not breaching them
- Report safety impaired instances and stand up for flight safety. This includes reporting commercial pressure itself.
- Have a plan B and communicate this beforehand to other parties
These solutions are a lot easier said than done. Aircraft owners can potentially be difficult to deal with if they have unreasonable expectations, and directly pay your salary.
However, only through standing up to what is safe can we progress the industry. This needs to come from both directions, not just pilots, so let’s talk about the other side of the equation.
What operators can do
There are 4 main solutions for operators that are required to tackle most threats related to commercial pressure:
Recognise and Train
Firstly, operators need to consider and recognise commercial pressure itself as a hazard. This might seem like common sense, but it is still very common to find aviation companies that do not talk about the fact that commercial pressure (or even perceived pressure) is a threat by itself.
By calling it out, recognising it, and providing training for it, employees will be more conscious of how they interact with each other and how they deal with pressure during the decision-making process.
This includes educating aircraft owners on what the limitations of the airframe are from an operational perspective.
If the owner gets told by the aircraft manufacturer (who wants to sell the airframe) that it’s an ‘all weather aircraft’ and he can ‘go anywhere’, this will lead to unrealistic expectations. Start educating aircraft owners and this will improve over time.
Establish a Just Culture
The next step is to make sure there is a Just Culture within the company. What is a just culture? Eurocontrol has an excellent definition:
“A culture in which front line operators or others are not punished for actions, omissions or decisions taken by them that are commensurate with their experience and training, but where gross negligence, willful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated.”
Without a just culture, having your front line staff be open and honest about mistakes will be very difficult and can lead to more latent threats. We will cover this topic in a future article so stay tuned for that.
Making sure there are clear communication channels available between management and operating crew is vital to learn from mistakes and improve as an organisation.
Learning from mistakes is one of the variables that has made the aviation and aerospace industry so succesful in the first place. This learning is dampened if mistakes are punished and crew are unable to debrief themselves honestly. Reporting is a requirement, which won’t happen if it doesn’t get encouraged.
There should be regular 2 way communication that emphasises learning from mistakes and discussing ways to improve as a system.
Preferably the safety department within the organisation should be separated from your direct managers. Some safety reports would never have been submitted if it wasn’t possible to file them anonymously.
If the safety department is also the direct manager at the same time, pilots might feel reluctant to report pro-actively.
Two way communications in this case means pro-active exchanges of information between staff and management. This could be in the form of safety reporting, surveys, meetings, or feedback forms. If staff do not feel confident to say no in the interest of safety, the operator should be willing to understand why and improve the internal culture.
Crew / Client Separation
The separation of operational crew and the client can make a massive difference. If the crew is directly paid and hired by the very person sitting in the back of the aircraft, there is more pressure on the pilots to ‘get the job done’ and ‘not upset the client’.
If however, there is a company between these 2 parties, it acts as a layer of protection, where pilots will feel more empowered to make decisions that might not resonate with the client.
Even in HEMS or other industries there are instances where clients could unconsciously put pressure on crews into certain decisions. Having a clear line between crew and client can help avoid this.
Commercial pressure is present in various branches within the aviation industry. It has caused many accidents already, especially in the corporate fixed wing and helicopter industry. If we do not pro-actively start solving this problem, it will just keep causing issues.
While the solution isn’t straight forward or easy to implement, hopefully this article can serve as an introduction to those who need it.