The Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) is the largest nongovernmental safety organization in the world and is focused on addressing and advancing aviation safety. As such, ALPA has helped develop, implement, and improve numerous safety systems used by airlines throughout the industry.
At most North American airlines, the pilots and management work collaboratively on mining aircraft and other operational flight data for evaluation and safety improvement purposes. When errors or issues are identified, the parties typically review the data, learn from the employees what may have transpired, and, where appropriate, ensure that corrections are made to policies/procedures or training requirements to prevent future occurrences.
For a program to be successful, employees—whether a pilot, flight attendant, mechanic, or other frontline worker—must be able to provide information in a confidential manner without the fear of reprisal. It is widely accepted that if an airline has the full perspective on its operation, it can better enact corrections to any identified deficiencies that in many cases would not have been known without the safety report from the frontline employee. Central to the functioning of any safety system is encouraging employees to report issues with protection from any form of reprisal.
Unfortunately, throughout the PAL Group of Companies, there appears to be a preference for retaliating against employees who speak up about safety or other operational concerns. This has led the pilot negotiators at PAL Airlines to make contractual proposals designed to shield pilots from discipline or termination for just doing their jobs. As you will see below, the pilots are trying to secure clear contractual language that would protect their careers when they participate in various safety programs or based upon data obtained from the aircraft.
An airline’s safety management system (SMS) is a government-mandated program by regulation that, amongst other things, allows airline pilots and other frontline employees to submit safety concerns to the airline which are then investigated and, where warranted, corrective measures are implemented to prevent future reoccurrences. This program is built upon a nonpunitive strategy designed to foster a just safety culture as it is well recognized that if employees are free from discipline—except in the most egregious and intentional cases—they are more likely to report their mistakes and other operational observations with the goal of protecting and advancing airline safety.
The benefit of implementing these programs is to show the regulator that a “self assessment” program is in place that supports and assists the regulators in carrying out safety oversight responsibilities. For example, if a pilot is directed by Air Traffic Control to descend to 23,000 ft., and mistakenly descends to 22,000 ft., the pilots could be subjected to regulatory action against their licenses by Transport Canada that may result in a fine or suspension from flying. By filing an SMS report, the government normally will not take regulatory action and instead the pilots and management are able to better understand the root causes of the error—such as garbled communications, inadequate SOPs, a radio malfunction, a broken headset in the flight deck, etc.— with an eye toward preventing such events in the future.
Successful SMS programs contribute to safety by promoting participation and ensuring participants maintain trust in the system. When confidence is eroded, participants tend to avoid filing reports, and real safety problems are not identified or corrected. Even more troubling are situations when a mishap occurs, and investigations begin, a root cause of the mishap is identified and it is discovered that employees all knew about the problems but were afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation.
At PAL Airlines, most pilots do not routinely file SMS reports out of fear of such retaliation and misuse by management.1 It is worth noting that pilots at the other two airlines owned/operated by the PAL Group of Companies—Air Borealis and PAL Aerospace—share the same fears and also avoid filing SMS reports. In the airline industry it is rare for pilot groups to take such a stance with SMS programs as they ultimately protect the pilot from potential regulatory action by the federal government, and generally help make the airline safer. Yet, pilots are prepared to accept the risk of potentially incurring fines or suspension of their licenses rather than provide the corporation’s SMS managers or local airline senior leadership with information for potential retaliatory action against the pilot.
This fear was exacerbated when the vice president of Flight Operations authorized the termination of a pilot at PAL Aerospace based upon information contained in the pilot’s SMS report. ALPA quickly highlighted this problem to the executive leadership at both the PAL Group and at the Exchange Income Corporation that owns the PAL Group of Companies, but was summarily advised that those entities do not have control over PAL Aerospace’s labour issues.
It should come as no surprise then that the PAL Airlines’ pilot negotiators proposed contract language to their management expressly providing how the SMS program should work with an emphasis on data collection, safety analysis of the aggregate data, and nonretaliation against pilots who submit such reports. Management summarily rejected the pilots’ proposal in its entirety, while their hired chief negotiator said that management was not interested in such written protections which she claimed are not found in other contracts. Whether contractual SMS agreements exists at other airlines is beside the point, as this is generally a subject that cooperative labour and management groups at other airlines intuitively recognize as a bedrock to aviation safety. That said, there are plenty of agreements—both published and unpublished—throughout North America describing how an effective SMS program should operate.
The PAL pilots will continue advancing contractual language that establishes and maintains a nonpunitive safety management system.
Today’s modern aircraft contain sophisticated avionics that are capable of recording hundreds if not thousands of data inputs and saving that information. Most airlines use that information, as a complement to their SMS programs, for identifying and improving upon potential problem areas. For example, flights operating into a specific airport may routinely record that the aircraft maintains a faster rate of descent rather than what is normal according to the standard operating procedure. On first blush, it may seem that an anomaly occurred on a specific flight that required the pilots to descend faster than normal. However, there could be many reasons this occurred and, in many instances, it is because of a clearance from Air Traffic Control.
Most airline management would identify the safety issue referred to above through a Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) program. In simplistic terms, the FDM program analyzes de-identified data retrieved from various aircraft recording devices for anomalies. When such an anomaly is flagged by the software, an analyst will review the situation, and if the airline is looking for additional information as to what happened, a designated union pilot (referred to as a “gatekeeper”) could call the pilots who operated that flight to understand what transpired. In fact, the reason that a gatekeeper is involved in the program to begin with is because of their familiarization with the way the airline system works. In many cases, these “gatekeeper” pilots can quickly identify, based on their operational knowledge and aggregate data, that when they flew into that same airport, Air Traffic Control routinely had them descending faster than the published procedures—in which case, there wouldn’t be a need to contact the operating pilots in the example above.
The FDM program has been in existence for quite some time in North America, with the U.S. carriers effectively using it since the 1990s.2 The hallmarks of an FDM program include three important features: (1) the program is used to analyze aggregate data; (2) pilots will not be disciplined based upon data obtained through the program, and; (3) the pilots’ union selects the gatekeepers who are able to identify the pilots that operated a particular fight and interview them as appropriate.
FDM programs work in conjunction with frontline employee reporting programs to help explain “why” the event occurred. Both programs are fundamental to any SMS program at an airline.
During negotiations, PAL management indicated that they wanted to implement a FDM program at the airline. The pilot negotiators responded in kind with a written proposal that provided the protections afforded to pilots under similar FDM/FOQA programs. Management rejected the proposal for no clear reason, and instead provided language that essentially says there will be a nonpunitive FDM program at PAL Airlines.
While the nonpunitive piece is important, it is just one of many protections that are necessary. As discussed above, pilot volunteers are normally used in FDM programs to act as the buffer between management and the operating pilots to ensure that there is no retaliation. Retaliation does not necessarily mean that a pilot is disciplined; it can include other insidious events such as not allowing a first officer to become a captain, subjecting the pilot to different and nonstandard training requirements, disparaging the pilot to other employees, etc.
The PAL pilot negotiators have proposed language preventing the Company from implementing a FDM program until such time as a proper agreement can be negotiated since management’s hired chief negotiator objected to the pilots’ originally proposed detailed rules governing the program.
As the discussion above highlights, professional pilots are generally comfortable with aircraft data being recorded, but that information should not be used for inappropriate purposes. The pilot negotiators proposed language to management that would restrict management’s ability to use data derived from an aircraft recording device. Unfortunately, management’s hired chief negotiator continues to believe that aircraft data should be used for disciplinary purposes and to essentially spy on pilots while in the flight deck to assess their flying abilities.
Transport Canada has an elaborate and well-respected process for evaluating pilots’ abilities that involves countless hours of annual training and checking of pilots by other government-designated pilots. This checking by physical pilots is critical to understanding how a pilot performs their duties because flight deck data cannot demonstrate the full situation that the operating pilots experience at any given time. In other words, the context of the flying environment is critical to understanding what transpired in an aircraft’s flight deck.
The pilot negotiators remain committed to not allowing aircraft data to be used against them for inappropriate purposes.
Download Flight Safety and Monitoring Programs Paper