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Organisational Factors – Level 3

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The discussion so far has looked at individuals and groups engaged in work. Even though some of the activities had been conducted at a distance (with air traffic control (АТС), for example) or across time (in the case of maintenance shifts), it still involved people engaged in a specific task. The work of those individuals took place in a context shaped by external factors. Organisational ‘pressure’ is occasionally cited in incident reports and often commented on by participants in crew resource management (CRM) classes. Indeed, the presence of external factors can be identified in some adverse events, even if their exact contribution to outcomes is more difficult to determine. For example, on 29 March 2001, a Gulfstream III business jet crashed on approach into Aspen, Colorado, killing the three crew and 15 passengers (NTSB, 2002). The airport at Aspen had a curfew in place, and the weather was marginal. Because of the late arrival of the passengers, who were being flown to a dinner party, the crew calculated that they would have enough time for just one approach, and if that was unsuccessful, they would have to divert. While they were waiting for the passengers the crew did consider landing at a different airfield and providing vehicles for the client and his guests. This was relayed to the customer’s PA and, in response, the pilots were told to keep their comments to themselves. He, the client, had spent a substantial amount of money on dinner. None of them made it. The captain and the dispatcher had discussed the attitude of ‘the boss’ over the radio en route, so it was clear that the experience was in the minds of the crew. What constitutes a ‘pressure’ and how it affects outcomes are difficult to determine, but it seems fair to suggest that, in this case, the captain’s decision-making was influenced by his experience with the customer.

In this chapter, I want to look at the role of the organisation in shaping the conduct of work. I have called this level in the hierarchy that of ‘exploitation’ because, in general terms, the role of an organisation is to exploit assets in order to generate a return. The fundamental point we need to make at the outset is that airlines exist to make money. The economics of the aviation industry is precarious, as the 2020 Covid pandemic revealed. Many small operators survive on slender margins, and a single unwanted event can wipe out any surplus generated if risks were not covered by insurance. It is perhaps an irony that insurance cover and a large pool of disposable, low-cost labour has probably impeded efforts to raise safety standards in some sectors of the aviation system such as ramp operations.

Organisations comprise individuals working in teams and so what we have already discussed in terms of Levels 1 and 2 applies equally within the corporate entity. The difference is one of outputs. So far, we have been looking at how crews function in order to deliver the service being offered by the company. At Level 3, the output is of a different nature. Rather than a task or a flight, the output is the return on the capital invested. Control over the conduct of business flows from the company business plan, industry audit requirements, regulatory requirements and social expectation. Feedback comprises measures such as financial performance, staff turnover, inspection and audit findings, adverse events and accidents. Financial success and the long-term survival of the company might be measures of performance from a shareholder’s perspective, but the emergent properties we are more interested in are those of morale and organisational citizenship - or its corollary, resistance. In terms of safety, organisations create the circumstances within which individuals act safely.

What Is an Airline?

In very simple terms, we can view an airline, like any commercial enterprise, as a mechanism designed to generate a return on the capital invested. The return takes the form of a surplus of income from various activities once costs have been covered. In order to make money, an airline attempts to optimise its offering within the marketplace. The type of aircraft flowm needs to match capacity to demand in terms of seats available and economy of operation. The frequency of services and sector lengths will have implications for aircraft utilisation and crewing requirements. The routes flown will reflect markets, and thus, specific passenger groups and the premium that can be charged. This, in turn, will influence the service standards offered. The infrastructure supporting the operation and the mode of ownership (i.e. the extent to which functions are subcontracted) affect costs.

The rise of so-called low-cost operators reflects an apparent polarisation of airline models with, on the one hand, the full-service ‘legacy’ carriers being contrasted with the ‘no-frills’ operators on the other hand. In fact, ‘low-cost’ is a misnomer. The ticket price may be lower but the business model is based on high utilisation of assets and, therefore, is in line w'ith other industries attempting to maximise profits through efficiency. This is clearly demonstrated in the adoption of minimum turn-round times on the ground. Time on the ground is, in effect, lost revenue and so the process of aircraft turn-round, in the low-cost model, has been refined such that it can be completed in a notional 25 minutes. Southwest, the originator of the low-cost model, calculated that extending the turn-round time to 35 minutes would require additional aircraft if existing schedules were to be maintained (Calder, 2002). Of course, maximum profits are obtained from a full aircraft but another low-cost operator found that high passenger load factors increased the probability of delayed departures simply because of the time it takes to disembark and board a full aircraft. By manipulating ticket prices, the airline was able to control load factors at a level that allowed the fast turn-round of aircraft but still generated the same revenue as a full aircraft (Westjet, personal communication).

The design of the operation, the range of income-generating activities and the markets served all have implications for the nature of the tasks undertaken by the workforce. For example, quick turn-rounds place a burden on the operational staff to complete tasks against the clock, w'ith an increased probability of injury. In the United Kingdom, the Health and Safety Executive did consider mandating minimum turn-round times in order to mitigate injuries to baggage handlers and other ground staff (personal communication). Strangely, the idea did not take hold in the industry. The seasonal nature of some operations means that operators in these markets have a continual and significant outflow of experience (see discussion of Table 9.1). The business model adopted by a carrier sets up contradictions that have safety implications.

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